Does Art Matter

Does art matter?  Does culture matter?  It is tempting to say that our belief in these things is a matter of faith: it is axiomatic – we assume as a first principle that art matters, and we use this assumption as a starting point for arguments about philanthropic support for the arts.

By contrast, economic rationalists would point out that most artists are economically unviable.  That is true.  Creative artists generally have miserable incomes from their art, and survive by teaching or waiting on tables.  Performing artists do not have it much better.  Depending on their speciality, they may have just as difficult a time as creative artists.

Economic rationalists would argue that pouring money into the arts is irrational unless the consumer considers the transaction to deliver a nett benefit to them.

The economic rationalist will buy the painting which delivers them the greatest pleasure for the lowest price, allowing that part of the pleasure might derive from the conspicuously famous name of the artist.

The economic rationalist will not be tempted to provide philanthropic support for the arts, because that produces no saleable return; the economic rationalist will not be tempted to commission music unless it has a good chance of generating royalties.

I want to explore briefly the assumption that Art matters, and set the argument against economic rationalism.

Vincent Van Gogh sold very few paintings, and those for very little money.  Cezanne was once booted out of his lodgings and the angry landlord hurled some of his paintings out of the attic window into the courtyard below.   Similar examples can be multiplied endlessly.

Would the world be poorer if Van Gogh had never painted Starry Night, or if Cezanne had not painted Les Bagneuses; or if van Gogh and Cezanne had never painted at all?

Would the world be poorer if Michelangelo had never painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or designed the Duomo in Florence;  if Leonardo da Vinci had never painted;  if Beethoven or Shostakovitch had never written a note of music?

Imagine a world without Shakespeare or Balzac and ask whether it is better or worse than this world.

It is no answer that paintings by Van Gogh and Cezanne now sell for tens of millions of dollars; that original scores of Beethoven are priceless, likewise the manuscripts of Balzac and Shakespeare.

We do not value these works because of their price tags: the price tags are almost entirely irrelevant to the value we see in these works.  Few people would accept that a person who buys an iconic painting could withdraw it forever from public view.

No-one would accept that the purchaser of a great work of art was entitled to destroy it.

The reason this is so is that we all acknowledge that a work of art is more than simply a physical thing capable of being bought and sold.

In profoundly important ways, every work of art carries part of our shared culture and it is that fact which gives the work its true value: a value which bears very little relation to the operation of a market for unique commodities.

The destruction of the library at Byzantium in 1204 and the looting of the national museum of Baghdad in 2004 represent losses which not even the crassest economist has tried to measure in economic terms, because the calculation would be seen by everyone to miss the point completely.

In a remarkable short story by Frederic Raphael, the author speaks of a man whose father was a judge.  He grows up with the unstated expectation that he will be a lawyer.  In his early adolescence starts writing poetry.  He is quite good a it, and keeps writing poetry when all his friends have returned to the cricket pitch.  He does well at school and is accepted into a law course, but keeps writing poetry. During his university days, he meets the girl he later marries.  She gently persuades him to forget about poetry and concentrate on law.  He abandoned a hopeful career as a poet for the much more prosaic career of a lawyer.  He prospers in his choice and is eventually appointed to the Bench.  Upon his appointment, he has to vacate his chambers and this leads him to the bitter-sweet task of going through the accumulated papers of decades to decide what may be disposed of and what should be retained.

“He had quite forgotten about his adolescent poetry and was astonished to come across a batch of it at the bottom of a cupboard.  He smiled – golly! – at the sight of it and took it out and started to read, for a laugh.  He expected clinching evidence of the folly of youthful pretensions.  His whole happy life had been founded on the assumption that he had been right to abdicate before his wife’s gentle, unmistakable judgment.  He sat on the floor of his chambers, boyishly grey, and prepared to be embarrassed by those unburnt embers.  Instead, the poems passed sentence on his life.  At last, he closed his eyes to escape their indictment, but the unblinking eye in the centre of his forehead gazed and blazed with unique and undeniable vision.  He cowered on the floor of the dusty cave and saw that the years of his life had escaped, like Odysseus’s men under the panicky sheep of the blind, deluded Polyphemus.  ‘Who are you, who are you?’ he cried.  And the voice of the man who had blinded himself replied ‘No-one.  No-one.’”

In that short, compelling paragraph the author shows the result of comparing the valuable with the priceless.

If we suspect that the world would be poorer without Beethoven and Mozart, without van Gogh and Cezanne; without Shakespeare and Balzac, we acknowledge the value of art for its own sake.

None of those people created material wealth.  None of them derived great material wealth in their lifetimes.  The value of unique paintings is a quirk of the market for commodities:  the true value of the works is spiritual.

If the manuscript score of all of Beethoven’s symphonies were destroyed, it would be tragic but we would still have the works themselves and our cultural heritage would remain intact.

I recently heard an enchanting story from a friend of mine called Mary who works in a large Melbourne bookshop.  She told me about a middle-aged Melbourne woman who ventured shyly into the bookshop.  Noticing her bewildered hesitancy, Mary approached her and asked if she was looking for a book.  “Yes” she said, “I’ve never bought one before.”  This startling comment turned out to be literal truth.  She had never bought a book in her life, and was unsure how to go about it.  My friend helped identify a book she was likely to enjoy, and the transaction was settled.  A couple of weeks later she was back and bought another book.  And so it went for some months and as Christmas approached she confided in Mary that she had suggested to her friends that books would be welcome Christmas presents.  Mary asked her how she felt now that she had begun reading books:  “It is wonderful” she said, “I no longer live in a flat in Kensington – I live in the world.”

There is great force in that comment.

There is great force in the notion that art connects us to the world, to each other, to others we can never meet or know.  It affirms and reinforces our integral relationship to the rest of humanity.  The wider our encounter with art, the richer that connection becomes.

So art is valuable, in and of itself.

Human language has a vocabulary adapted to accommodate our daily needs and functions: the vocabulary of any human language maps approximately to the needs and activities of our mundane lives.

But few would deny that there is another dimension of human existence which transcends the mundane: call it the soul, the spirit, that part of the human frame which responds to the call of the non-rational.

In the domain of the human spirit, other vocabularies emerge.

Painting, music, poetry, sculpture are all different languages, each with its own unique vocabulary.  The vocabulary of each artform gives it access to areas of human experience which are not available to other sorts of language.

This is why works of art are considered less meritorious – at least less interesting – as they become more literal and narrative.  If an idea is best expressed in words, why bother expressing it in paint or music instead?

By contrast, some ideas can only be expressed in paint or music: the vocabulary of paint and music share little of the vocabulary of spoken language.  I once heard someone ask an abstract expressionist to say what one of his paintings meant. He said “No, I can’t tell you, but I will try to hum it.”

It is neither useful nor interesting to ask what Beethoven’s 5th symphony “means”, or what Carl Vine’s 4th string quartet “means”, if the questioner wants you to say in words what Beethoven  or Carl Vine said in music

This is the key to understanding why Art matters.  Every form of art is a unique way of seeing, and at its best each form of art says things which cannot be said, or said as compellingly, in any other way.

Deny this, and you close off part of the human spirit.  As Victor Hugo said:

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.

A history of the Weimar Republic speaks of the same things which occupied Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz, but their work reaches out to us in a quite different way.  The story of that time and place would be incomplete without their work.

Try to imagine this country if all practising artists perished overnight.  Imagine this country if, for the next generation, there were no new paintings made, no new novels or poems written, no new music, no new sculpture.

Imagine looking back on that bleak and wasted generation in 50 or 100 years time.  Like a layer of ash in the archaeological record it would stand as a silent marker of a period of desolation.

Culture is the accumulated record of artistic expression of a time and place.  It may present an unattractive picture, or a brilliant one, but it is an essential record unless we take the nihilist view that human existence itself is irrelevant.

The nihilist would see no point in having children.  If any one of us matters, then art matters and culture matters.  A Society without culture leaves no children; with no past it can have no future.

Climate Change

Helen Sykes has published more than 30 books in the Future Leaders series (see .  The next Future Leaders book is Climate Change and Health.  She asked me to write a chapter, and said I could put it on my website:

Climate Change and Human Rights

Climate Change represents the greatest challenge to human existence we have ever experienced.

This is not a universal view.  On 29 April 2019, Dr C.J. Hamilton wrote:

“Climate Change” alarmists base their case for man-made Global Warming on two key claims.  Their first claim is that carbon dioxide is “dirty” and a pollutant – it is not.  Their second claim is that the increase in global temperature since the onset of the industrial age around 1850 is primarily due to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by the combustion of fossil fuels – it is not.  There is no evidence in all the historical scientific records to support this claim.  The real cause of “Global Warming” is the repeat of the Warm Period cycle which made Greenland green a thousand years ago during the Medieval Warm Period and caused the Little Ice Age from 1350 to 1850.

It’s not a view I do not share.  If Dr Hamilton would consider me a “Climate Change alarmist” so be it.  But although I am persuaded that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the principal cause of Climate Change, I do not regard it as “dirty”, or a “pollutant”.  And, despite Dr Hamilton’s sharp views, I regard Climate Change as very important and a major threat to our species.

A lot of people think that our knowledge of Climate Change dates from Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring (1962) or Al Gore’s later expressions of concern about it.  In fact, we have known the mechanism of Climate Change for much longer: roughly 160 years.

It is worth considering the earlier history of Climate Change.  In the 1820s, Joseph Fourier calculated that a planetary object the size of Earth should not be as warm as it is, given its distance from the Sun, and the relatively small amount of sunlight falling on its surface.  We now know that Venus and Mars both have atmospheres, as does the Earth.  The atmosphere of Venus is about 100 times as dense as the atmosphere on Earth. Venus is closer to the sun than Earth is; Mars is further away.  To make sense of the table that follows, it is worth bearing in mind (in relation to Fourier’s observation) that Venus and Earth are roughly the same size; Mars is much smaller than both. The atmosphere of Mars is about 1% as dense as the Earth’s atmosphere.

Planet        distance from Sun           av. temperature

Venus         108 million km                  461o C

Earth          150 million km                  61o C

Mars          228 million km                  -60o C

The temperature on Mars ranges from 20o C in daylight  to -73o C at night.  As most commentaries on Mars note, its atmosphere is so thin that it does not have a thermal blanket to trap heat.  The contrast between Marrs, Venus and Earth is obvious.

In about 1859, Tyndall discovered that water-vapour was an important heat-trapping agent, and that it tended to trap carbon dioxide, which was also very good at trapping heat, by preventing the escape of infra-red radiation. The trapped heat enables the atmosphere to hold more water vapour, more CO2  and so on.  He demonstrated this on 10 June 1859 in a Royal Society lecture, pointing out that coal gas and ether strongly absorbed infrared heat

The central insight was in fact given earlier in a paper by Eunice Newton Foote, in about 1856, but Tyndall gets the credit.  Some things just don’t change.   Eunice Foote was an American scientist, inventor, and women’s rights campaigner from New York.  At a conference in 1856, she presented a paper titled “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays” which suggested that changing the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would change the Earth’s temperature.

In the 1890s, Svante Arrhenius demonstrated that CO2 trapped infra-red rays, and that the consequent warming would enable more water vapour to be held in the atmosphere, and that water vapour would in turn trap more heat in the atmosphere.  He worked out that if you halved the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the temperature of Europe could drop by as much as 4-50C.  Conversely, increasing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere would increase the average temperature of the Earth.  His calculations were remarkably accurate.  (The concern of 19th Century scientists with water vapour is probably a reflection of the fact that the Industrial Revolution was, in large part, powered by steam).

Between the four of them: Fourier, Foote, Tyndall and Arrhenius showed us what we needed to know about the mechanism of Climate Change.  We ignored the science, but now it’s getting critical.  Let’s hope we don’t allow politics to distract us too much: our future depends on understanding the implications of what we have known for more than a century.  Al Gore simply reminded us of this “inconvenient truth”.  And Dr C.J. Hamilton shows plainly that it is a very divisive issue.  The sad fact is that it has become highly political.

in 2011 the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari wrote a book called Sapiens. It is a history of our species, homo sapiens. He makes the point that we have been around for about 200-300 thousand years.  Until we discovered agriculture we lived in extended family groups, hiding from our predators. But when we discovered agriculture, about 12 thousand years ago, we started living in villages, towns, cities.

Harari raises a fascinating  question, which he does not answer: Are we genetically disposed to be concerned about the immediate group rather than the entirety of our species? It’s a good question, and all the more important because Climate Change is the first phenomenon in history which threatens our entire species.  And that threat is now at its most visible and critical phase: in November 2018, the IPCC reported that we have until 2030 to take serious steps to defeat Climate Change, or it will be too late.  Despite the urgency of that warning, the government in the USA seems to deny the reality and seriousness of Climate Change; Australia’s major political parties seem incapable of formulating policies which accept the sorry facts, the mechanism for which has been known since 1856: both of Australia’s major political parties seem contented to ignore the science (as well as the evidence of our warming climate), and to keep exploiting our fossil fuel resources, either for use or sale.  Is it too cynical to think that their attitude to Climate Change might be different if they did not receive large donations from the fossil fuel industry?

Dr C.J. Hamilton’s disdain for Climate Change is reflected in the fact that (in Australia) the only political party to take Climate Change seriously is the Greens, and that party is treated as a refuge for people whose ideas do not deserve to be taken seriously.

Harari’s question has immediate importance for all of us: unless we are willing to be so selfish that we will accept the best the planet has to offer us, despite the fact that future generations will probably be unable to survive on this planet.

It troubles me that, as a species, we seem unwilling to accommodate the idea that it will be difficult for us to keep going like this; that we need to recognise that Climate Change is a serious threat; a serious threat to us, and to the whole of our species.

In Australia, we seem able to accept all that is good, while ignoring the dangers we have created. If the bushfires over the summer of 2019-2020 were a kind of warning, we seem able to ignore the warning.

Perhaps it is because we have a government which has denied the existence of Climate Change for a long time and a PM (Scott Morrison) who took a lump of coal into the parliament, apparently to show us how safe it is! Perhaps it is because we have a dis-spirited Opposition which does not have a clear policy on Climate Change.

Perhaps politicians in both major parties see that they will be long gone before the harshest consequences of Climate Change are apparent; and for that reason they are willing to accept huge donations from the fossil-fuel industry. I have a different view.

For my part, I expect to live out my life before the worst effects of Climate Change make human life on Earth impossible, but I think we all have an obligation to make sure that we leave the planet as liveable for the future as possible, or at least foreseeable.

It would be a fine thing if the science of Climate Change turned out to be wholly wrong, but that seems highly unlikely.  So far, all the evidence seems to support the science.  It is interesting that politicians who are willing to dismiss the science of Climate Change would probably not be willing to board a plane if science told them it had a 20% chance of crashing before it arrived at their destination.  And most politicians who are willing to dismiss or ignore the science of Climate Change nevertheless use mobile phones, the functioning of which is plainly a product of science.

The rich, advanced countries in the world have benefitted greatly from the phenomena which are responsible for Climate Change: the use of fossil fuel to power the remarkable enterprises of the post-industrial revolution world.  But Climate Change has consequences for every country, rich and poor; for the entire planet.  The phenomena responsible for it are, essentially, fossil fuels used to create light, heat and energy.

While the mechanism of Climate Change has been known for about 160 years, the precursors go much further back: to Newton’s time.  Newton’s law of the conservation of energy teaches us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another.    So, an explosion of petrol in an engine is transformed into motion, heat, noise etc..

Fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil) were produced tens of millions (or hundreds of millions) of years ago as a product of the sun’s energy (Sunlight provides the energy for plant growth; plants eventually die and become coal, etc.).  Fossil fuels store energy in the bonds between the atoms that make up their molecules. Burning the fuels breaks apart those bonds. This releases the energy that originally came from the sun.  That is why timber can be burned to produce (release) heat.  Allowed enough time, the timber becomes a fossil fuel. Simply stated, the sun is the original source of energy on this planet (and all others in our solar system).

It is worth remembering that the fossil fuels we use today store energy from the sun from millions of years before our species existed.  And since the start of the industrial revolution, at least, we have been releasing that energy with increasing enthusiasm, to the great profit of some, but at a terrible risk, eventually, to us all.

The difficulty (and the confusion) about the conservation of energy arises where the transformation of stored energy to noticeable energy results in wasted energy.  So, the heat and noise produced by fuel in a car engine are forms of energy which are difficult or impossible to capture and re-use.  When a stick of dynamite explodes, the chemical energy is transformed into heat, noise (sound energy) and movement of objects (motion energy).

Energy which dissipates that way is difficult to harness for useful purposes.  Because of this, Newton’s law of the conservation of energy is not self-evident.  The simple fact is that all the energy we use ends up going somewhere.  Using fossil fuels releases energy which arrived on the Earth  many millions of years ago.  If we use fossil fuels now, the stored energy has to go somewhere.  Using fossil fuel means that energy will be released which arrived on the Earth millions of years ago.  The science of Climate Change shows that the stored energy ends up warming the vast amount of water in the oceans, and causing catastrophic weather effects: increasing average temperatures, storms and so on.

And where a by-product of the transformation of one form of energy to another is CO2 (or water vapour, nitrous oxide, methane or ozone), the tendency of those chemicals to trap infra-red radiation in the atmosphere means that our planet gets warmer.

The fact that the sun is the original source of energy on this planet raises interesting possibilities for Australia.  I have heard that if just 3% of the centre of Australia was covered with solar panels, we would produce enough electricity for the entire globe.  There are many obvious practical difficulties with implementing that approach, but it makes a very important point about Australia’s natural advantages.

Sunshine could easily create enough electricity for all of Australia, and there would be a lot of energy left over.  That’s important, given that the sun does not shine brightly every day, and does not shine at all at night.

But on days when the sun shines brightly, the use of surplus sunshine, in a country like Australia, raises many possibilities, especially as the spare sunshine could easily be used to create energy which can be stored and used later.  For example  Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, has suggested using the energy from surplus sunshine to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.  Later, the hydrogen  could be burned (as a source of energy) and the by-product of this is, of course, water.  Hydrogen is readily transportable.

Other suggestions include using sunshine to superheat various salts which can be stored underground as a medium- to long-term heat storage.  Another suggestion is to use surplus sunshine energy to lift water in projects like Snowy 2.0.

Wind power is another obvious energy source.  Europe, especially, has many wind-turbines in use.  The number of wind farms in Australia is increasing, but depends largely on government encouragement which at present is sorely lacking.

And Elon Musk has shown how efficiently energy can be stored in Lithium ion batteries.  Australia has vast deposits of Lithium: one prediction says that Western Australia could supply half the world’s Lithium.  Whether Lithium ion batteries remain a preferred way of storing energy is not clear, but it offers immediate possibilities.

Right now, the wealthiest countries in the world are run by the luckiest generation in history.  The baby-boomers are a generation which has not seen a World War, or a Depression, although it remains to be seen if the Covid-19 pandemic changes that.  It is a generation which has had the very best the world can offer.  This has been managed (in part) by massively exploiting the fossil fuel resources of the Earth, the impact of which is being felt, especially, in poor countries which cannot afford to protect their people against it; and in low-lying countries, which are becoming increasingly unliveable.  And yet, the richest countries in the world are doing little or nothing to protect poorer countries from the impact of what we have done.  The injustice of it is obvious.

Australia is in an interesting position.  Our domestic CO2 production is relatively small by world standards: China is the largest producer, USA number 2; Australia number 17. However on a per capita basis Australia is at the top of the list: per head of population, Australia is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other country.

Unfortunately it is easy for us, who have benefitted from the use of fossil fuel, to deny that there is a problem or to assert that it will resolve.   After all, the consequences are comfortably remote.  By contrast, the world’s reaction to Covid-19 was much sharper because it showed immediate consequences.  That said, America’s response was tragically relaxed.  As at the start of June 2020, about 105,000 people had died in America because of Covid-19.  It took a delayed (and relaxed) approach to the pandemic, and had the biggest death toll in the world.  In Australia we responded much more actively, and our per capita death rate was very low, as at the start of June 2020.

But even America’s death toll was way less than 1% of its population.  Yet its approach to the threat of Climate Change, which threatens 100% of its population (as well as the population of the rest of the world), is to deny it or ignore it.  And the reason for that striking difference appears to be simply this: Covid-19 is an immediate threat, with consequences which are visible right now; Climate Change is a threat that might not destroy us for 50 or 100 years.  Our “leaders” will be long dead before the consequences of their short-sightedness are noticed; but ignoring Climate Change rewards Americans with a booming economy.  As a result, political pressures mean that warning about Climate Change (let alone taking steps against it) looks politically difficult; politically disadvantageous.

To those of us who are old enough to remember early advertising about smoking, this is a familiar response.

The fact that smoking tobacco was associated with adverse health outcomes was known from the 1890s.

When science first raised doubts about the health consequences of smoking, the tobacco industry responded with advertising lines like “You’ve got nothing to lose but your smoker’s cough”.

In the early 1950s an English study showed a clear link between smoking and lung cancer, although it could not predict that a given individual who smoked would certainly get cancer: the likelihood increased, but it was not a certainty.

On 11 January, 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General‘s Report on Smoking and Health was published; it led millions of American smokers to quit, and it resulted in certain advertising being banned.

Cigarette advertising was banned progressively over the following 40 years.  Australia slowly followed, so that many types of tobacco advertising are no longer legal in Australia.

In short, the known ill-effects of smoking were resisted (or doubted, or denied) for a very long time, because there was good money in pretending the truth lay elsewhere; and the effect of smoking on any given individual was almost certainly a long way in the future and impossible to predict with any confidence.  The parallel with Climate Change is obvious.

For most people, the idea that our planet will become impossible for human life is nearly impossible to accept.  Denying the possibility is easy and comforting.  Not one of us would like to think that the quality of our lifestyle will cost a future generation the possibility of continued existence.  If the science was plainer, or more definite, or more precisely predictable, it is likely that our response (as a species) would lie somewhere between our recent response to Covid-19 and our current attitude to smoking.

The human rights implications of Climate Change are profound, and obvious.  The rich, lucky countries have got richer and luckier, while the whole world pays the price.  Those of us who live in New World countries enjoy the benefits of the consumption of fossil fuels: in the USA there are 838 motor cars for every thousand people in the population; in Australia, there are 790 motor cars for every thousand people in the population.  But our avoidable production of Greenhouse gases has an impact in every country, and on all the oceans.

It is tragic that concern about Climate Change and Greenhouse gas emissions has become so mired in politics and commerce and blind optimism.


We need to value the Arts

I am grateful to Fortyfive Downstairs for what follows.  Fortyfive Downstairs is an art gallery and performance space in Flinders Lane, Melbourne:

Like the artists it supports, Fortyfive Downstairs is having a hard time because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Anyway, this is from its latest newsletter:

In the first terrible days of the pandemic, the fate of the Arts (and particularly the artists) seemed to be forgotten, and their importance to our well-being overlooked. This week their significance has been eloquently expressed in an ArtsHub article by Professor Peter O’Connor (University of Auckland Faculty of Education and Social Work):

‘Our connection to the arts sits at the heart of our shared humanity. We all know instinctively that when the world is in a mess, the arts are there for us Movies, music, online theatre and games, making art in our garages and our homes have become a key part of how we manage the fears and disruption of physical isolation.

If the arts are vital for the present, they are even more important for our future. They feed and nourish our imaginations. A better world can only be made if we first imagine that it is possible.’

 Most artists make a lot out of very limited (financial) resources

This has been brought home vividly by artists who’ve used new technology to create and share wonderful events with choirs, orchestras, and music of all genres. But fantastic though this is, it’s only a substitute for the real thing – hearing and physically feeling the notes of a cello reverberate in a recital space, or sharing the pleasure of an outstanding theatre performance with a like-minded audience. This was expressed rather poignantly by The Age film reviewer, Jake Wilson, in an article last weekend:‘It’s not the total experience of the real thing’ he wrote, ‘Streaming is no substitute for the shared cinema experience’. And it’s the experiences of our audiences that we’re impatient to bring back as soon as we’re able to have a timetable to do so.

A Very Stable Genius

Donald Trump refers to himself as “A Very Stable Genius”.  And a disturbing book about him by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig bears that as its title.

I have just been sent a send-up of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “I am the very Model of a Modern Major-General”. from Pirates of Penzance.

Unless you are a keen Trump fan, or a one-eyed G&S fan, this is very funny:

And here’s a link to the G&S original:

Are We There Yet?

I’m a bit late posting this: just came across it again.  it’s the Barry Jones Oration I gave in 2013.

Are We There Yet?  

It is a great privilege to be giving a talk in honour of Barry Jones.

Like many others, I first became aware of Barry when he was an apparently permanent fixture on Pick-a-Box. Most of us remember that he often tangled with Bob Dyer and quibbled about the expected answer, most famously when he was asked who the first British Governor-General of India was. He gave the expected answer, Warren Hastings, but then pointed out that, strictly, Hastings was only the Governor of Bengal. The first Governor-General of India was Lord William Bentinck.

But what distinguished Barry’s participation in Pick-a-Box was a disconnect between his purposes and Bob Dyer’s purposes. For Bob Dyer, the show was all about competing for material reward; for Barry it seemed to spring from a genuine interest in knowing things. I will never forget how excited I found it to see a person who knew so much about so much.

His extraordinary run on that show started in 1960 and ended in 1968. Viewed from the present, that may not seem such a long time but, to orient it to my own life, it began when I was in year 6 and ended when I was in my second year at Monash University. I did not imagine then that I would later be able to count him as a friend.

No-one who lived through those years could forget the mark Barry made in his mighty struggle to save Ronald Ryan from the gallows. While Barry did not manage to save Ryan from the crazed vindictiveness of Henry Bolte, he won the larger fight: although Ryan was eventually hanged, in February 1967, he was the last person to be executed in Australia.

Barry once predicted that one day there would be more computers than cars in Tasmania. He was ridiculed for this.

The received wisdom then was in line with what had been said for years by people who should have known:

  • In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
  • In 1957 the editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall said: “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.”
  • And 20 years later, in 1977, the president of Digital Equipment Corporation, Ken Olson, said: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

In this and many other things, Barry sees much further than any of us. It is no accident that he is the only Australian to be a Fellow of all four learned academies: the Australian Academy of Science; the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

In 1962, when I was in year 8 at school and Barry was cleaning up all comers on Pick-a-Box, I discovered the writing of James Thurber. In particular, his Fables for our Time and Further Fables for our Time. These were little stories in the style of Aesop’s fables: short, simple stories which generally had small animals as the main protagonists and ended with an explicit moral.

Thurber’s reason for choosing that style was probably the same as Aesop’s: it meant he could write subversive things, but get under the radar of government censors. He wrote during the McCarthy era, when dissident thinking was even more dangerous and unwelcome in America than it is today.

In the last of his fables, Thurber tells of a lemming who, on his way home after a late night, stumbles, hits his head and, dazed, starts running towards the cliff. He accidentally starts a stampede. The other lemmings who follow him toward the cliff are no more certain why they are running than he is. They hurtle over the cliff, some shouting “We are saved” and others shouting “We are lost”.

The moral of the story was: “All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why”.

As a 12-year old I was greatly impressed by that moral. It has stood the test of time: I am still impressed by it, as the most unassailable single sentence of philosophical truth.

Thurber’s question shares a frontier with the question all children ask, as the miles roll tediously by: Are we there yet?

The answer depends on where you trying to go.

For human beings, we discover we are there just as we go over the cliff. At that moment it is a bit late to deal with Thurber’s question.

For Societies, Thurber’s question is just as important, but the cliff is a much more abstract idea. But every Society should ask: Are we there yet? Because asking that question focusses the mind on where we are trying to go.

Barry has a 17 year advantage on me, and his memory is far better stocked than mine. He would certainly have details which would illuminate the present landscape better than I can. But even with my more limited vision, it looks as though Australia has not worked out what it is running from, or to or why.

As a country, we are performing way below our potential. We have never been perfect. No country is. But I am old enough to remember how things were in the 1950s.

Post-war migration to Australia presented some interesting challenges for us.

I remember during the 1950’s hearing people of my parents’ generation talking about the DPs and dagos and wogs who were coming into the country. Old Australians complained that New Australians were too religious, they had too many kids, they didn’t learn English, they didn’t fit in. Their women dressed all in black from head to foot and their food was weird: coffee, with froth on the top. Spaghetti which didn’t come from a tin. And, heaven help us, they ate squid.

They challenged our view of ourselves.

What I did not notice at the time was that, by small degrees, those same people began to adopt some of our ways, and we began to adopt some of theirs. It became smart and fashionable to eat at Italian and Greek restaurants.

The stereotypes of the 1950s faded, and our fear of wogs and dagos evaporated.

One way or another, things seemed to work out fairly well. Bit by bit the White Australia policy was dismantled. In 1967 we overwhelmingly supported a referendum to recognize Aboriginal Australians as part of the human population of the country which we had colonized in 1788.

The Pill and the Swinging Sixties did not spell the end of civilization.

Despite the direst predictions, it turned out that 6 o’clock closing was not essential to the good functioning of Society.

And some time in the 1960s the divide between Catholics and Protestants – something which had broken families in the past – faded away.

In the late 1970s there was another wave of new faces, this time refugees who had fled Vietnam and Cambodia. Fraser persuaded Whitlam that we should let Vietnamese boat people come to Australia. A lot came: about 25,000 a year for a few years. Fraser said we had been part of the problem and we had to be part of the solution.

The problem was brought to us in terrible images and in real time. For the first time in the history of human conflict, we saw events as they unfolded. Previously, we had to wait until the hostilities ended before we got the pictures. We only learned of the concentration camps when allied troops conquered Germany and the world was exposed to the skeletons, living and dead, in Belsen and Auschwitz and Dachau and other places, and suddenly we understood what the Jewish refugees had been running from when we turned our backs on them at the Evian conference in 1938.

But the Vietnam war came to us each night on the TV news. And newspapers showed us the appalling image of a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in 1963; and by another photograph of a police chief blowing a man’s brains out in the street.

Later, a photograph of a naked child running, terrified, from her burning village. And images of vast areas devastated by napalm.

It was to Fraser’s credit that he persuaded Whitlam not to make a fuss about the arrival of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.

We took another small step forward in 1992, when the High Court departed from centuries of learning and held that Australia had not been terra nullius in 1788: that Aborigines had been here as the owners of the land when white settlers arrived. Rai Gaita illuminated the significance of the Mabo decision when he explained the thinking which had supported the doctrine of terra nullius for so long:

“We love, but they ‘love’; we grieve, but they ‘grieve’; and of course we may be dispossessed, but they are ‘dispossessed’. That is why, as Justice Brennan said, racists are able ‘utterly to disregard’ the sufferings of their victims. If they are to see the evil they do, they must first find it intelligible that their victims had inner lives of the kind which enable the wrongs they suffer to go deep”.

So far, so good. As a Society, Australia had come to grips with a lot of contentious issues. It hadn’t been perfect, but it was not bad. And we knew that the idea of a fair go was in our DNA: it was not just a marketing idea.

But in 1998, something important and fundamental started to shift. Or perhaps that is just when I began to pay attention. By chance I was briefed to act for the Maritime Union of Australia in what turned out to be a fairly contentious case.

Patricks was one of the two big stevedoring operations in Australia. They were caught out training an alternative, non-union workforce in Dubai and never offered a convincing explanation.

Early in 1998, rumours began to circulate that Patricks were about to do something drastic. As the weeks went by, the rumour firmed into a suggestion that Patricks were about to dismiss the entire unionized workforce on the Australian waterfront. Rumours are not evidence and so there was not much to work with. Innocent of any knowledge about the Workplace Relations Act, I asked what would happen if Patricks acted as the rumour suggested.

Those in the team, who were cleverer and better informed than I was, told me that the workforce would be reinstated, because of the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. I asked innocently if there were any exceptions to that. They said that the only exception was if Patricks were going out of the business of stevedoring. Well, if they were to go out of the business of stevedoring, Patricks would have to sell their assets, so I suggested that we should write to Mr Corrigan asking for an undertaking not to dispose of Patricks’ assets and not to dismiss the workforce. If he did not give the undertaking sought, then his refusal would provide the evidence we needed.

He treated the request dismissively. He did not give the undertaking. We prepared a motion for injunctions, returnable on the Wednesday before Good Friday. The motion simply sought an order restraining Patricks from disposing of its assets or sacking its workforce.

On Wednesday morning, 8th April 1998, Australia woke to headlines saying that the entire workforce of Patrick Stevedores had been dismissed and had been replaced by an alternative, non-unionized workforce. When I arrived in court, Counsel for Patricks told me that administrators had been appointed to Patrick Stevedores. This was a surprising turn of events. My time practising as a commercial junior in the 1970s and 1980s made me think immediately of Bottom of the Harbour schemes. I thought that probably the court would be unimpressed by Patricks acting precipitately and doing the very thing which the court had been asked to restrain.

The Judge granted a holding injunction and directed that the matter should come back for further argument after Easter. Patricks were required to provide us with all relevant documents showing what had gone on. The picture revealed by those documents was truly astounding.

The previous year, in September 1997, the assets of the main stevedoring companies had been sold to new companies and the resulting credit balances were sent upstream to a holding company. The companies which had always employed the workforce – apparently large and successful stevedoring companies – were left with two assets only: their workforce, and contracts to provide the workforce to the new owners of the assets. These labour hire contracts were, in effect, terminable at will by the company with the assets. The employees had no job security whatever and no means of knowing the fact.

The effective result of this arrangement was that the labour hire company could be jettisoned without harming the enterprise. This made it possible to dismiss the entire workforce in a single stroke. On the ground, nothing at all had changed: Patrick Stevedores still had the appearance of prosperity which it had enjoyed for many decades, but it was a mere shell. The workers were hostage to a corporate shadow, and a CEO with secret plan.

The only party bound to gain from this strategy was the company which owned the assets. The only people bound to lose were the employees. As it happened, an obliging Federal Government had agreed in advance to provide the labour hire company with enough cash to pay the accrued entitlements of the employees when the workforce was sacked en masse. Thus the risks associated with the stevedoring venture were transferred to the workers and underwritten by a Government enthusiastic for waterfront reform at any price.

The case ran at an astonishing pace. We resumed argument before Justice North on the 15th April. The argument ran for three days. On the 21st April, Justice North delivered his Judgment and granted injunctions pending trial. At 3 o’clock that afternoon the Full Federal Court convened. They ordered a stay of Justice North’s orders pending appeal.

The Full Court appeal began the next day, 22nd April and ran over to the 23rd April. At 7 o’clock that night the Full Court gave judgment, upholding the order of Justice North. At 10 pm Justice Hayne in the High Court granted a stay of the Full Court’s orders, pending an application for special leave to the High Court.

The following Monday, 27th April, the seven judges of the High Court convened in Canberra and began hearing Patrick Stevedores’ application for special leave to appeal from the Full Federal Court’s orders. The application ran until the afternoon of Thursday, 30th April.

The following Tuesday, 4th May 1998, the High Court delivered judgments upholding the judgment of Justice North. The process of going from Judge at first instance to appeal to a final hearing by 7 judges of the High Court took three weeks. Ordinarily it would take between three and five years.

For me at least it was a shock to learn that any Australian government would conspire to break its own laws in an attempt to break the union movement: it’s not how patrician blue-bloods are meant to behave. But the Coalition government argued all the way to the High Court that it was OK. They lost.

Then things got worse.

Since the Russians had left Afghanistan, the Taliban had escalated their attacks on the Hazara minority. Millions of Hazara fled Afghanistan. A few thousand reached Australia.

In August 2001, the Palapa I was carrying 438 Hazaras towards Australia.

It began to sink. Australia asked the Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, to rescue them. But when it tried to put them ashore at Christmas Island, Australia sent the SAS to take command of the Tampa at gunpoint.

John Howard said the people rescued by Tampa would never set foot in Australia. He said any asylum seeker trying to get protection in Australia would be sent to Nauru: a tiny Pacific Republic with a population of 10,000 people and an area of just 21 square kilometers. He ordered that no humanizing images of the Hazara refugees were to be allowed.

Then September 11 happened. And the Liberal government headed into the 2001 election on the indecent slogan that “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which thy come”. Liberal propaganda called asylum seekers “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” and said that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea.

The Labor party said nothing to contradict the lies. The Liberals, it seemed, had turned into a party which was prepared to lie to the electorate, and gain popularity by mistreating the most helpless people in the world.

For the next few years the cruelty and dishonesty continued. Asylum seekers, innocent of any offence, were held in detention for years until they collapsed into hopelessness and despair.

A little girl, ten years old, held in detention in Melbourne, hung herself.

A little boy, eight years old, held in detention in South Australia, slashed his arms with razor wire.

A man who had been in detention for five years cut himself so often he had ten meters of scarring on his body, but the government insisted that the only treatment he needed was solitary confinement and Panadol.

The Liberal government argued all the way to the High Court that a man who had not committed any offence and was not seen as a risk to anyone, who had been refused a visa but could not be removed from Australia because he was stateless, that this man could remain in detention for the rest of his life.

What was shocking was not only that the government won, but that a Liberal government was prepared to make the argument in the first place.

The Immigration Department held Cornelia Rau in detention for more than a year, in wretched, degrading conditions. She was filmed as she was dragged, naked and protesting, from her cell in Baxter detention centre, being manhandled by a group of guards.

Eventually the Department discovered that she had a visa and was entitled, all along, to be in Australia. It paid her a huge sum in compensation for the brutality and humiliation she had suffered.

We deported Vivian Alvarez-Solon from Australia and dumped her in the Philippines. The Department then realised that she was legally entitled to be in Australia: but it ignored that fact and did nothing to correct its mistake for the next two years.

We ignored the fact that David Hicks was being held and tortured in Guantanamo Bay by our allies, the USA. The Americans told him that, even if he was charged and found not guilty, he would not be released from Guantanamo. We knew this.

Hicks was held without charge for five years and the Australian government did nothing to help him. The Howard government eventually interceded on his behalf when public opinion swung in his favour, and Howard saw that there was an advantage to be had from helping him.

Then Kevin Rudd became leader of the Labor party and won government in late 2007. He promised a better, more humane, policy concerning refugees. And he delivered it.

But then Tony Abbott became leader of the party which still called itself Liberal.

He re-started the anti-refugee rhetoric. Rudd responded by attacking people smugglers. He called them “vermin” and the “vilest form of human life”. He seems to have forgotten that his moral hero, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, was also a people smuggler.

The attack on people smugglers was ham-fisted at best, and hypocritical at worst. For a start, it lumped all people smugglers into one irredeemable moral group: they were the “scum of the earth”. When today’s refugees wash up on our shores, Abbott and Morrison speak with concern about the boat people who die in their attempt to get to safety, but their concern is utterly false. Instead of attacking the refugees directly, which is their real purpose, they attack the people smugglers instead.

Because, aren’t people smugglers the worst people imaginable? We overlook the fact that Oskar Schindler was a people smuggler, and so was Gustav Schroeder, captain of the ill-fated MS St Louis which left Hamburg in May 1939 with a cargo of 900 Jews looking for help. He tried every trick in the book to land them somewhere safe, but was pushed away. He ended up putting them ashore again in Antwerp, and more than half of them perished in concentration camps.

We also overlook the fact that, without the help of people smugglers, refugees are left to face persecution or death at the hands of whatever tyranny threatens them.

Many recent boat people are Hazaras from Afghanistan. They are targeted ruthlessly by the Taliban, who are bent on ethnic cleansing. The Hazara population of Afghanistan has halved over the past decade, as Hazaras escape or are killed. The Taliban want to get rid of all of them. We have overlooked, it seems, that we are locked in mortal combat with the Taliban; and that my enemy’s enemy is probably my friend.

For a couple more elections and a couple more fractured administrations, things kept sliding to the right. It is a striking fact that the Labor party’s stance on refugees is well to the right of John Madigan – a DLP Senator.

The Pacific Solution was begun by Howard’s Liberal government in 2001, it was abolished by Rudd’s Labor government in 2008, and it was re-started by Gillard’s Labor government in 2012. In 2013, Rudd topped it with the PNG Arrangement.

Then in 2013 we had an awful election campaign in which Rudd and Abbott competed with each other in their promises to mistreat asylum seekers. It’s tempting to think that if Pauline Hanson had been asked to help Rudd, she might have been concerned that he was too far to the right for her taste.

The Liberal won the election. Australia lost.

The Labor party lost a lot of talent when half its front bench followed Gillard out the door.

The Liberals quickly showed their true colours when we learned that senior members of the new government had been rorting their parliamentary expenses. That was no surprise: but it was interesting to see that the new Attorney-General was involved. Haughty, supercilious, self-righteous George Brandis had elbowed his way to the trough with the best of them.

After all wasn’t Brandis the one who had ferociously attacked Peter Slipper for visiting a winery and charging the taxi ride to the Commonwealth? Brandis went to a friend’s wedding and billed the Commonwealth $1600. When he was found out two years later, Brandis repaid the $1600 but said he had done nothing wrong.

Peter Slipper is still facing criminal charges for much less.

And Tony Abbott has billed the Commonwealth for every fun-run and lycra cycle-fest, not to mention his Tamworth photo opportunity which apparently cost us about ten grand. Over the last couple of years he has had his hands in our pockets for about $3 million.

Just last week, Scott Morrison issued a directive to Immigration Department staff that boat people were to be referred to as “Illegal Maritime Arrivals”. Calling boat people “illegals” is now official Coalition policy, it seems.

It is a lie.

Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott know it is a lie.

But they lie to us deliberately, in order to dehumanize asylum seekers. That way they can mistreat asylum seekers and gain political advantage from doing so.

What is striking about the “illegals” lie is that Abbott and Morrison, and others in Cabinet, claim to be devout Christians.

But with their stealing from us, and lying to us and their claim to Christian belief smells like hypocrisy.

Since very recently, people held in our detention centres are again being addressed by use of their camp number, rather than by name. There are 1700 children in detention – innocent children, jailed indefinitely. Ostensibly for our protection. It is monstrous.

So here’s the problem.

By 1998, we had stopped running from our fear of foreigners and our fear of Communism; we had come to enjoy the idea that the world saw us as part Crocodile Dundee, and part Jack Thompson; part Kath and Kim, and part Edna Everage.

It’s a strange mix, but kind of endearing. It was a good place to be.

Now, we have a hard right-wing Liberal government, led by dishonest, self-seeking hypocrites.

Now, we have a weakened, right wing Labor opposition.

Now, we believe it is good policy to mistreat people who are escaping persecution.

Now, we are a country which is seen overseas as selfish, greedy and cruel and we have no political leadership at all.

We are well into the process of redefining Australia and what it is to be Australian. Most of us have not noticed because, for most of us, life is good. But a surprising number of people have admitted to me that they are ashamed to be Australian.

The sight of the major parties competing in their promises of greater cruelty to boat people was new in Australian politics. We have never been perfect, but this was something without precedent.

It is painful to recognize that we are now a country which would brutalize one group in the hope that other people in distress will choose not to ask us for help.

What are we running from? No one can say.

It’s not hard to see what we might be running to: but why?

The new path we are on has plenty of precedents in history. We know what can happen when governments conspire to break their own laws. We know what can happen when a Society thinks it is acceptable to see one group as less human than the rest, and use that as an excuse to mistreat them. We know what can happen when governments start stealing from the people and lying to them.

We know where those paths lead.

Are we there yet? Not yet. Not quite.

It is not too late to turn back.

Julian Burnside

Domestic and family abuse

An essay by Sarah Ruby

Domestic and family abuse is currently at the forefront of our national discourse, due to the horrifying murder of a Brisbane mother and her three beautiful children, by a man who decided that if they weren’t going to live ‘his way’, they had no right to live.

As a survivor of domestic abuse, I know I was only one of thousands of women around Australia who watched the aftermath of the attack with that sinking feeling in our stomachs, the familiar internal refrain of “that could have been me”- or, for some of us, “that could be me one day”. I certainly never expected to live to see 2020.

There is something frightening, impossible to prevent, and without and end-date happening in communities around Australia. The victims are men, women and children. They are hidden from sight, intimidated into silence, afraid of the consequences if they speak out. I’ve witnessed one such threat personally.

Therefore, with the freedom I have to do so, I believe it is necessary for me to inform the Australian public of this fact- the men, women and children in immigration detention in this country, and their friends and family, are being subjected to domestic abuse. The perpetrator is the Honourable Minister for the Department of Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.

Allow me to tell you what I’m watching unfold, from the perceptive of a domestic abuse survivor- men and women who have left situations of domestic abuse can usually, at some point in the future, identify the key elements that define the situation as abusive. In my case, that took years of therapy. Hopefully I can save you that time.

Emotional abuse- being belittled, dehumanised, being told at every turn that what you’re doing is wrong, that you’re a bad person or a bad parent, name-calling.

Financial abuse- having your access to money restricted, not being allowed to work or study, having your spending examined and essential items withheld from you.

Physical abuse- including, but not limited to, assault.

Sexual abuse- including, but not limited to, sexual assault.

Restriction of movement- being told where you’re allowed to go, and when. Having a curfew. Being isolated from family and friends.

Medical abuse and reproductive coercion- not being allowed to keep your medical visits or records private, being denied medical treatment, being denied contraception.

Gaslighting- blaming complaints about the above on your ‘mental health issues’, telling other people you’re unstable or that you’ve harmed your children, in order to isolate you from anyone who might support you.

Let’s examine how these play out in Immigration Detention.

Firstly, it needs to be said- the ‘kids off Nauru’ campaign was successful, but the vast majority of these children are now living in Community Detention.

In both custodial and community detention scenarios, the abuse criteria play out as follows:

Emotional abuse – parents are told by Australian Border Force caseworkers and Immigration staff that they’re ‘bad parents’ for bringing their children to Australia. The children are told that their parents made a mistake in bringing them to Australia, that this will never be their home, and that they have no future here. I witnessed one speaker-phone call with a minor in which an Australian Border Force caseworker told her that if she continued to complain about her unsuitable accommodation (strange men were frequently at the home, on one occasion under the influence, because the owner was allowing it- I physically removed a drunk man from their backyard), ‘the Minister might reconsider his generosity in allowing you to live in the community’. This was a threat to put the child back into Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and I immediately cut the call.

Financial abuse – nobody in detention is allowed to work. Families in Community Detention rely on food banks and charities in order to survive. When rotting fruit and vegetables are all that can be procured, mothers cut the rotten bits off, and freeze them. Once teenagers turn eighteen, they are no longer allowed to study in any form. Young women whose mothers fled their country of origin so that they can receive a tertiary education are relegated to sitting at home, unable to work or study.

Physical abuse – Beatings from guards in detention are common, and have always been. Beatings from other detainees are a risk, some claim at the behest of the guards. What you won’t know, however, is that refugee children were beaten on Nauru by locals. One boy I know, as a ten year old, was badly beaten by an adult Nauruan man for trying to assist a child half his age who was also being beaten.

Sexual abuse – for some detention guards, sexual assault is a game. They target Muslim men during pat downs, then laugh, knowing homosexual activity is considered ‘haram’; I don’t know a single detained woman who wants to fall pregnant. Everyone identifies as too traumatised to care for a newborn.

An Australian Citizen is being repeatedly hospitalised against her will because her carer, her partner, has been detained. His detention has been officially declared arbitrary (yet in 2019, a man who murdered his wife walked free from Immigration Detention).

Gaslighting: You’ve all seen the claims of ‘asylum seekers being coached to self-harm by advocates’, ‘parents harming their children to come to Australia’. Not a shred of evidence has ever been offered, or found, to support these claims. After two years of searching extensively for proof of these claims from the Government, my only findings are:

children being bullied at school due to the stigma of having been a refugee on Nauru – bullied not only by students, but by teachers, and parents of other children.

I witnessed a speaker-phone call between a caseworker and teenage boy, where the boy was refusing to sleep in his allocated granny flat because the men in the house at the front had repeatedly accosted him, his mother, their friends, and threatened to shoot him – the caseworker told him that he couldn’t sleep in a car because ‘there could be snakes’. My own son is the same age – 16; if I forced him into an unsafe living situation, with an active threat of violence, I would be rightly investigated by Family and Children’s Services.

I wish I didn’t know any of this. I wish I could go all ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and erase what I’ve seen over the past five years. The reality is, I cannot.

We are taught as a society to speak up when we see domestic abuse being perpetrated. As a survivor, I strongly believe this principle must be upheld.

So, Australia, I must inform you: in my opinion, from both lived experience and what I’ve witnessed, the biggest perpetrator of domestic abuse against men, women and children, is your elected Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.

What will you do about it?


A Bit About Words: Misdemeanours

High Crimes and Misdemeanors

It is impossible (well, difficult) to be alive today and not be aware of Donald Trump. And if you are aware of him, it is difficult to overlook the fact that his conduct as President of the USA is (to say the least) unorthodox. So unorthodox that the US House of Representatives undertook an official impeachment enquiry. In American law, the articles of impeachment are formulated by the lower house, for trial in the upper house. A President is not removed from office except by a two thirds vote in the Senate.

It all starts with the US Constitution.

The American Constitution was the result of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The first draft was prepared in 1787, and it was ratified in 1788 after Congress voted to transmit the document to the thirteen states for ratification. By 21 June 1788, it had been ratified by the minimum number of nine states required under Article VII. The first ten amendments to the Constitution were adopted in 1789. They are collectively referred to as the Bill of Rights: they reflect the English Bill of Rights of 1689 – a century earlier – and a couple of additional protections drawn from Magna Carta as interpreted by Sir Edward Coke.

Section 4 of Article II of the Constitution provides:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors

There is a continuing debate about what is meant by “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”.

Nowadays misdemeanour is generally a reference to a relatively minor offence. The OED gives the current meaning of the word in the law as “One of a class of indictable offences which were formerly regarded as less heinous than those called felonies…” and the Macquarie defines it as “a less serious crime”. The English Dictionary (1742) by N. Bailey defines misdemeanour as “an offence or fault” whereas Johnson (1755) defines it as “Offence; ill behaviour; something less than an atrocious crime”. Webster’s International Dictionary (1902) defines misdemeanor ( no u) as “(Law) a crime less than a felony” and adds a note quoting from Blackstone:

“As a rule, in the old English law, offences capitally punishable were felonies, all other indictable offences were misdemeanors. In common usage the word crime is employed to denote offences of the deeper and more atrocious dye, while small faults and omissions of less consequence are comprised under the gentler name of misdemeanors.”

(Even though Blackstone spelt the word misdemeanours with a u, Webster drops it in the quotation.) The American Heritage Dictionary adopts a definition, consistent with Webster: “(Law) an offence less serious than a felony”. In England, the distinction between a felony and a misdemeanour was abolished by the Criminal Law Act of 1967.

It is to be noted that many dictionaries still distinguish between the ordinary meaning of misdemeanour and the meaning at law. The OED, for example, defines misdemeanour as follows:

    1. a.1.a Evil behaviour, misconduct. Now rare.

b.1.b An instance of this; a misdeed, offence.

    1. Law. One of a class of indictable offences which were formerly regarded as less heinous than those called felonies; high misdemeanour

The New Oxford English Dictionary (1998) defines misdemeanour as “a minor wrongdoing” and adds “Law a non-indictable offence, regarded in US (and formerly in the UK) as less serious than a felony”.

(It is interesting to see the silent nod to the Criminal Law Act of 1967 which abolished the distinction between a felony and a misdemeanour).

Johnson does not make such a clear distinction between ordinary usage and legal usage, when he defines it as “Offence; ill behaviour; something less than an atrocious crime”.

Given the way the words are printed in the US Constitution (“…high Crimes and Misdemeanors…) it is possible that the adjective high was intended to qualify both nouns (Crimes and Misdemeanors). That would raise the question: what is a high misdemeanour? The OED definition of misdemeanour (quoted above) defines it, in part, as high misdemeanour.   The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” as one of the criteria for removing public officials who abuse their office was suggested by George Mason of Virginia. Before Mason’s suggestion, other phrases had been suggested, including high misdemeanor, maladministration, and other crime. George Mason was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. (He was one of the three delegates who refused to sign the Constitution.) So, it seems that we do not have to unpick the idea of high misdemeanour.

This becomes clearer, when you consider that, at the Constitutional Convention, Edmund Randolph (a lawyer from Virginia) said impeachment should be reserved for those who “misbehave.”  Charles Pinckney (from South Carolina) said, it should be reserved “for those who behave amiss, or betray their public trust.” These both seem to fit within the contemporary understanding of misdemeanor.

The phrase high Crimes and Misdemeanours was used often enough in England to remove officials. Since 1386, the English Parliament had used the term high crimes and misdemeanours as the ground on which officials of the Crown could be impeached. The allegation was used to remove from office officials accused of widely varying acts (not all of them criminal offences) such as misappropriating government funds, appointing unfit subordinates, not prosecuting cases, not spending money allocated by Parliament, promoting themselves ahead of more deserving candidates, threatening a grand jury, disobeying an order from Parliament, arresting a man to keep him from running for Parliament, losing a ship by neglecting to moor it, helping suppress petitions to the King to call a Parliament, granting warrants without cause, and bribery. The common feature of these accusations was that the official had abused the power of their office and was unfit to serve.

Section 4 of Article II provides that an official can be removed from office on “…impeachment for, and Conviction of…” (Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors). The impeachment investigation is a matter for the House of Representatives; conviction is a matter for the Senate. The House of Representatives in USA has begun impeachment proceedings against only 19 officials – one U.S. senator, four presidents (including Trump), one cabinet member, and 13 federal judges. It is notorious that three presidents have been impeached by the lower house, but they have been spared conviction in the Senate. Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1868, but not convicted in the Senate. Richard Nixon was impeached, but resigned when the Watergate tapes surfaced and before a trial in the Senate: on 27 July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment charging Nixon with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. He resigned on 8 August 1974, before the Senate could hear the case against him. And Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1999, but not convicted in the Senate (there were 50 votes against him, where 67 votes were needed for a conviction: despite the oath Senators must take before sitting on an impeachment trial, it all ultimately turns on politics).

The misdeeds of Nixon and Clinton are well-remembered by most people. Johnson was President much longer ago: he was Lincoln’s Vice-President and took office after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865; he was in favour of slavery. The House voted to impeach him in February 1868, three days after he sacked his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, contrary to the provisions of the Tenure of Office Act.

Which raises the question what impeach means. According to the OED impeach originally meant “To impede, hinder, prevent”, with supporting quotes from 1380 to 1690. Closer to the mark, it is also defined as meaning “To challenge, call in question, cast an imputation upon, attack; to discredit, disparage” with supporting quotes up to 1888, with the earliest from Shakespeare Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“You do impeach your modesty too much To leave the City, and commit yourself into the hands of one that loves you not.” (1590).

Impeach is also defined as meaning “To bring a charge or accusation against; to accuse of, charge with.”, supported by quotations from 1380 (Wyclif) to 1840 (Dickens).

As the House of Representatives has resolved that Donald Trump engaged in high crimes or misdemeanors, it has impeached him accordingly, but he will not be removed from office unless the Senate convicts him (by a two- thirds majority) of either of the articles of impeachment resolved by the lower house.  At the time of writing, the articles of impeachment have not been sent to the Senate, because the Republican Senate leader (Mitch McConnell) is talking about having a trial without hearing from any witnesses, or receiving any documents.   Senator McConnell clearly has no idea what a trial is.

Conviction in the Senate is where raw politics saved Johnson and Clinton. Johnson avoided conviction in the Senate by just one vote. Clinton survived conviction by 17 votes. Trump may get a similar result, given the power of the Republicans in the Senate, even though his erroneous ways have been far more egregious than those of Johnson or Clinton.

It would be the great irony of our times that a President, who has tormented the English language as much as George W Bush did, should finally raise the greatest challenge for English: the meaning of the key phrase in section 4 of Article II of the Constitution.

A Bit About Words: How Words Change

The process of change in language includes the drift of meaning, the invention of new words, and the obsolescence of existing words.  It is interesting to survey a list of words once disparaged by the arbiters of language as “not proper English words”.  In 1818, Dr Todd published the first revised edition of Johnson’s Dictionary.  It was the first edition of the Dictionary which had not been supervised by Johnson himself.  It draws on an annotated folio edition which had been owned by Horne Tooke, the politician and pamphleteer.  Tooke had compiled a list of words found in Johnson’s Dictionary, which he regarded as “false English”.  This list is reproduced in the Todd edition.  It includes such curiosities as abditive, acatalectic, conjobble, dorture and warhable.

However, it also includes justiciable, fragile, mandible, mobile, cognitive and horticulture.  How the fortunes of words can vary!

Most of the words which perish, disappear leaving no trace except in the dictionaries.  Some others leave a reminder of their former existence, in a variant modified by a prefix or a suffix.  Gruesome, noisome and cumbersome are all in daily use.  Oddly enough, grue, noy and cumber all existed once but have fallen from use.  To grue is to feel terror or horror, to shudder, tremble or quake.  To cumber is to overwhelm or rout;  also to harass, distress or trouble.  To noy is to trouble, vex or harass;  it is an aphetic form of annoy.

Many words which still bear their original meaning take a form which has drifted from the original.  The corruption of form is generally due to difficulty of pronunciation coupled with frequent use, or confusion of an unfamiliar term with a similar but familiar term.

One of the commonest forms of corruption is aphesis: “The gradual and unintentional loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word ” [OED2]

Cute is an aphetic form of acute; longshore is the truncated form of alongshore.  This explains the American usage longshoreman for our stevedore.  Stevedore is itself an aphetic adaptation of the Spanish estivador, which drives from estivar: to stow a cargo.

Likewise, sample is an aphetic form of examplebackward is an aphetic form of abackward; and vanguard was once avauntguard, from which avantguard also derives.

Ninny is an aphetic and abbreviated form of an innocent.  More recently, we have squire from esquire, specially for especially.  In the language of the law, several ambiguous forms survive: vow and avow; void and avoid.

The goanna was originally the iguana.  The opossum is now the possum.  However, it is difficulty of pronunciation which gives us bandicoot from the Telugu word pandi-kokku, meaning pig-rat.  (The pandi-kokku is a very large, very destructive Indian rat, the size of a cat.  Our bandicoot is a different species, but somewhat resembles the Indian rat).

The process also happens in reverse, by which the original form takes on an additional letter, typically the n from the indefinite article.  An example of this is apron which originally was a naperon.  Its connection with napery and napkin is obvious.  Equally obvious is the spoken sound of a naperon coming to be spoken as an apron.  It is odd that we do not say apkins, specially since most of us use them more often than we use aprons

Another example is orange which comes originally from the Arabic  naranj, in Persian.  narang, naring: cf. late Sanskrit. naranga, Hindi narang; and Persian. nar pomegranate.  The Italian was originally narancia but is now arancia.  The Spanish is still naranja.

That hallowed hero of the sporting arena, the umpire, used to be the numpire.  The word comes from the Old French non pair – “not equal”.  Its earliest recorded spelling in English was noumpere (so spelled in 1364, and also in Wyclif’s Bible, 1420).  The corrupted form emerged soon afterwards, and went through a variety of spellings during the next 200 years (owmpere, ovmper, ompar, umpere, vmppere, umpeer, umper, unpar, umpyer, impier, umpyre), until it stabilized on the current spelling in about the 17th century.

We have a much more recent expression of closely similar derivation: au pair.  It has not quite become naturalised in English.  It means literally on equality or on equal terms.  Its first recorded use in English dates from late last century:

1897 Girl’s Own Paper 16 Oct.  “An arrangement..frequently made is for an English girl to enter a French, German or Swiss school and teach her own language in return for joining the usual classes. This is called being au pair.”

Examples of other agents of word-corruption abound.  The Australian plonk meaning cheap wine comes from the French vin blanc, notwithstanding that it equally (or more frequently) refers to red wine or other liquor.

That great and traditional accompaniment to festive occasions in Australia, the saveloy, is a corrruption of the French cervelas:  a highly seasoned cooked and dried sausage.  We have corrupted the thing as much as we have corrupted the word which signifies it.

That fabric so loved by American tourists, seersucker is an East Indian corruption of Persian  shir o shakkar , literally ‘milk and sugar’.

The strange glow which sometimes surrounds a ship’s mast at sea is called Saint Elmo’s fire.  This is a corruption of Saint Erasmus, an Italian bishop who was martyred in 303 AD.  He was the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors.  It comes to us by way of Sant Ermo, San Telmo and Sant Helmo.

Devotees of square dancing or Nashville sounds will recognise do-si-do as one of the caller’s instructions.  It is a corruption of the French dos-à-dos and describes a figure in which two people pass around each other back to back and return to their places.

The word nickname has always seemed a curious construction.  It has been suggested that it is an invocation of the Devil (“Old Nick”).  However, that piece of folk etymology is wrong.  Originally, it was an eke-name.  To eke is to supplement; so the person who ekes out a living doing odd jobs is supplementing their other income.  It is widely misused.  An eke-name is a supplementary name.  By the 15th century, its corrupted form was emerging: the OED gives an instance from 1440, which refers to “… neke name or eke name…”

Real estate agents, who offer penthouses for sale as the very height of luxury living at the very top of a building, might be forgiven for not knowing that it was originally a lean-to or covered-in walk-way.  Penthouse combines the effects of several agents of change.  Its earlier form is pentice, which comes from Old French. apentis, apendis, from medieval Latin appendicium, “a small sacred building dependent upon a larger church”.  From that original meaning and form, it came to mean any small dwelling attached to a larger one.  In 1592 the records of the Manchester Court Leet refer to “…settinge upp a slated pentis or hovell”.  The recent development of the word may be discerned from the following quotations from OED 2nd edn:

1921 Country Life Apr. 65/1  Two of the elevators were designed to run to the roof, where a pent-house..was being built. 

1937 Sunday Dispatch 28 Feb. 2/7  You all know from American lyric writers that a pent-house is a thing stuck on a roof.  It may comprise one or two floors. 

1945 E. Waugh Brideshead Revisted i. viii. 194  They’re going to build a block of flats, and..Rex wanted to take what he called a ‘penthouse’ at the top. 

Still More about Words: Glamour

There is no more glamorous city in Australia than Sydney.  Ask anyone who lives there.  It is the prestige place to live and work and have corporate headquarters.  This annoys Perth, where the gravitational pull of ferrous metal is ever growing.  Sydney is Tinsel-town to outsiders, but its prestige never fades.

The first paragraph of this essay is unequivocally a compliment to Sydney if each word is given its current meaning, but in earlier times it would have been seen as hovering on the frontier which envy shares with malice.

Glamour  has developed oddly.  Its current meaning is almost entirely favourable, even if tinged with jealousy.  Some recent references in the Court of Appeal give a fair representation. In Chisholm v Pittwater Council & Anor [2001] NSWCA 104 the Court said:

“…During the first part of the last century, Palm Beach was regarded as the “epitome of the simple, unspoilt life”. Later, Palm Beach acquired a reputation for “glamour”, and was regarded as a ‘place for the [very] wealthy’…”

The judgment is attributed to Meagher JA, Powell JA and Ipp AJA, but that sentence bears the stamp of Meagher JA.

In Union Shipping NZ v Morgan [2002] NSWCA 124 at [114] Heydon JA, with laser-like precision, said:

“The defendant … said that all that mattered was the merit or weakness of any particular argument, quite independently of which court had employed it. Yet it was noticeable that the defendant, in its enthusiasm for particular arguments favourable to its position, constantly reminded the Court of the glamorous courts associated with them, like the United States Supreme Court, or the glamorous judicial names associated with them, like those of Jackson J and Frankfurter J, or even the glamorous academic names associated with them, like Kahn-Freund, Morris, Cheshire and North.”

Hodgson and Santow JJA agreed.

These references fairly catch the current sense of glamour, although the inverted commas around it in Chisholm suggest that the author well knew the gulf between its original and its current meaning.  It’s all Sir Walter Scott’s fault.  Glamour was originally a Scottish word meaning magic or sorcery, and its connotations were unfavourable.  Burns used it in this sense:

“Ye gipsy-gang that deal in glamor, And you deep read in hell’s black grammar, (Warlocks and witches (1789))

Bailey’s dictionary (1721) does not have an entry for glamour, and neither does Johnson’s Dictionary (1755): but Johnson notoriously disliked Scotland.  Scott is credited with introducing the word into literary use.  In Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) he wrote:

“This species of Witchcraft is well known in Scotland as the glamour, or deceptio visus, and was supposed to be a special attribute of the race of Gipsies.”

(Deceptio visus, not surprisingly, is an optical illusion).

Later in the 19th century, glamour came to signify a magical or fictitious beauty; then in the 20th century charm; attractiveness; physical allure, especially feminine beauty.  It is notable that charm is the hinge around which the shift in meaning swings, since charm can refer to an appealing character or to a magic spell.

By the middle of the 20th century the current meaning was established.  In Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path (1941) one character says:

“I’m going to pour it on with a bucket. If I can’t look like the screen’s great lover, I can at least smell like a glamour boy.”

Glamour and prestige have followed surprisingly similar trajectories.  Like glamour, the current meaning of prestige can be fairly caught in recent decisions of the Court of Appeal.  In Dawes Underwriting v Roth [2009] NSWCA 152 Macfarlan JA said:

“Dawes offers insurance for a range of high performance, prestige , vintage and classic motor vehicles.”

In Fexuto v Bosnjak Holdings [2001] NSWCA 97 Priestley JA noted that

“One element in what happened from 1988 onwards must have been Mr Jim Bosnjak’s increasing prestige in the bus industry outside the family business…”

(I wonder if it occurred to his Honour that ‘prestige in the bus industry’ was an improbable idea).  In Citibank v Papandony [2002] NSWCA 375, one term of the distributorship agreement provided:

“Distributor shall always use the Marks in such a manner as to maintain their goodwill, prestige, and reputation.”

The sense of the word is unmistakably favourable in each case.   There is no hint that, at least until the late 19th century, prestige connoted magic, trickery, or deception.  The OED offers quotations from the 17th to the 19th century in support of the original meaning an illusion; a conjuring trick; a deception, an imposture.  It comes from the Latin præstigium: a delusion, and ultimately from præstringere to bind fast, thus præstringere oculos to blindfold, hence, to dazzle the eyes.  Johnson has prestiges: “illusions, impostures, juggling tricks”.

During the 19th century, prestige acquired the secondary meaning “Blinding or dazzling influence; ‘magic’, glamour; influence or reputation”.  Supporting quotations in the OED include this from Fonblanque (1837): “The prestige of the perfection of the law was unbroken.” and this from Sir William Harcourt (1898): “People talk sometimes of prestige.‥ I am not very fond of the word. What I understand by prestige is the consideration in which nations or individuals are held by their fellows”.  It was not until the 20th century that its current sense was fully established.  So this from W. Somerset Maugham (1944): “Though she didn’t much care for [modern paintings] she thought quite rightly that they would be a prestige item in their future home.”

Prestidigitation (originally prestigiation) is a close relative of prestige, but has not moved socially.  It still means sleight of hand or legerdemain.  The first use of it noted by OED is dated 1859: the very time when prestige was beginning to shift its meaning.  It filled the gap left by its upwardly mobile relative.

And tinsel?  It’s doubtful flattery.  It originally referred to the treatment of fabric, especially satin, “Made to sparkle or glitter by the interweaving of gold or silver thread” (not bad), but later, applied to “a cheap imitation in which copper thread was used to obtain the sparkling effect” (not so good).  But the traditional Scottish meaning was worse.  In the 14th century it meant “The condition of being ‘lost’ spiritually; perdition, damnation.”  In the 15th century, as a word in Scottish law, it meant forfeiture or deprivation.  And in Bell’s Dictionary of Scottish Law (1838) there appears the entry:

Tinsel of Superiority, is a remedy‥for unentered vassals whose superiors are themselves uninfeft, and therefore cannot effectually enter them.

Glamour and prestige are examples of that exclusive club which includes obnoxious, panache, tawdry, sanction and mere.  They are words whose meanings have shifted over time (that’s common enough):  these words have changed meaning 180 degrees.  Rarer still are words which have two current meanings which are opposite.  But enough for now: I will let you figure out what they are.

An Alternative to Being Cruel to Refugees

At the time of the Tampa episode in 2001, Australia introduced a system of sending boat people to other countries for processing.  “Offshore processing” does not quite capture what this involves. In fact, boat people who arrive in Australia and seek asylum are forcibly evicted from Australia and have their asylum claims processed in that other country: but it is now made clear to them that those who are found to be refugees will not be resettled in Australia.  That point was made to them in 2013 very forcefully by then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, as an illustration of his decidedly un-Christian attitude to people who have fled persecution.

It is significant that the two places which have been chosen for this role are Nauru and Manus Island.  Nauru is a Pacific Island republic.  Its land area is a total of 21 square kilometers (It is smaller than Tullamarine Airport!).  It has a population of 10,000 people.  It does not have an adequate supply of food or water for its own people.  Manus Island is part of Papua New Guinea. It is a small island north of Port Moresby. The area of Manus Island is about 2100 square kilometres; its population is about 55,000 people.  It is mountainous and covered in jungle.

So that the size of these places makes sense, you could fit two instances of Manus Island into the Greater Melbourne area.  Nauru would fit into the Greater Melbourne area about 260 times over.  Conditions in Manus and Nauru are harsh.  Their use was heralded as part of a policy of deterrence, so the harshness is intentional.  The idea of deterrence is that, faced with the choice of facing persecution at home, or the risk of drowning followed by the harshness of Manus or Nauru, would-be asylum seekers will prefer to face the Taliban or the genocidal regime in Sri Lanka rather than head to Australia. It may not be our vision of ourselves that we look nastier than the Taliban, but that is the logic of deterrence.

The Pacific Solution costs us about 5000 million dollars a year. Shut it down once and for all.  Assume the boats will start arriving again (It is far from certain, but assume it).

I do not advocate an open borders policy.  Initial detention for people who arrive without papers is not difficult to justify.  But it should be limited to one month, and should be used for preliminary health and security checks.  After that, release them on interim visas with four crucial conditions:

  • they are allowed to work or study;
  • they are allowed full access to Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
  • they must stay in regular touch with the Department until their refugee status has been determined (for example, they could check in at a Post Office once a week);
  • they are required to live in a specified regional town or city until their refugee status has been determined.

There are plenty of country towns which are slowly shrinking as people leave. The National Farmers Federation estimates that there are 96,000 unfilled jobs in country areas.  It is highly likely that many asylum seekers would get jobs.

How this would work can be tested by making some assumptions.

First: numbers.  The arrival rate of boat people tracks parallel to the global movement of refugees: we aren’t a magnet, we get just a tiny percentage of refugees who are on the move.  The biggest arrival rate of boat people was in 2012, when nearly 25,000 boat people arrived.  (For comparison, the annual migration intake – people who are not refugees but move to Australia – is about 200,000 people per year).

Let us assume that 25,000 boat people arrive in Australia every year, and let us assume that all of them stay on full Centrelink benefits.

These are both highly unlikely assumptions.

It would cost us about $500 million a year.  All that money would be spent in the economies of regional towns. It is not difficult to see the benefits to the economy of regional towns and cities which are slowly losing population to the capitals.  And we would save about 4.5 thousand million tax-payer dollars each year.  And we would

In short, if we could persuade Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton to adopt a truly Christian approach to other human beings, we could be doing good for refugees and for regional Australia, instead of intentionally harming innocent people.

And isn’t Australia supposed to value the idea of a fair go for everyone??


A Bit More about Words: Soothsayer

“SOOTHSAYER. Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR. What man is that?
BRUTUS. A soothsayer you beware the ides of March.
CAESAR. Set him before me let me see his face.”
(Shakespeare Julius Caeser, Act I, sc. I)

Brutus subsequently dismissed the man as “a dreamer”, but he had special knowledge and a motive for putting Caesar off the scent.

The original meaning of soothsayer is literally “truth sayer”.  Sooth as a noun is an old anglo-celtic word for truth.  It has had many forms including soth, south, suth, swth, suith and soyth. From as early as 950 it is found in such works as Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospel and the Old English Chronicles.  It was also used in phrases with modern equivalents which more or less follow the old pattern:  in very sooth (in truth), sooth to say (to tell the truth), to come to sooth (to come true) and by my sooth (upon my honour).

Although the root of the word is truth, and many soothsayers made their fame and fortunes by purporting to tell the truth about the future, their predictions were often based more in optimism than reality.  They provided the template for sorcerers and politicians.  They were not the same as oracles, even if they seemed to be in the same caper: oracles were the agency through which the gods revealed their will.  They provided the template for gospellers and priests.

Soothsayers are referred to often enough in classical literature, but not so much lately.  You will find references to them in translations of Aristophanes, Herodotus, Sophocles and Thucydides, and in Homer, Plotinus, Plato and Plutarch.  Chaucer mentions a soothsayer in The Knight’s Tale; the OED2 gives quotations from a handful of other English writers up to the mid-18th century.  Rudyard Kipling refers to a soothsayer in Kim, and Washington Irving mentions one in Alambra, and makes it clear that this brand of truth teller was not to be trusted: “I would advise you, O prince, to seek that raven, for he is a soothsayer and a conjurer, and deals in the black art, for which all ravens, and especially those of Egypt, are renowned.”

The other use of sooth is the old but recognisable exclamation forsooth.  Originally, it was a genuine declaration of the truth of a statement.  Shakespeare used it this way frequently:

“Prince. How long hast thou to serve, Francis?
Fran. Forsooth, five years…”  (Henry IV, Part I)

I more incline to Somerset than York:
Both are my kinsmen, and I love them both.
As well they may upbraid me with my crown,
Because, forsooth, the King of Scots is crown’d.  (Henry IV, Part I)

SIMPLE. Ay, forsooth.
QUICKLY. Does he not wear a great round beard, like a
glover’s paring-knife?
SIMPLE. No, forsooth; he hath but a little whey face, with a
little yellow beard, a Cain-colour’d beard.
QUICKLY. A softly-sprighted man, is he not?
SIMPLE. Ay, forsooth; but he is as tall a man of his hands as
any is between this and his head; he hath fought with a  warrener.
(The Merry Wives of Windsor)

For some curious reason, Shakespeare uses forsooth much more often in Henry VI, Part II (1590) and in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1598) than in any other of the 21 plays in which he uses it.

Since Shakespeare’s time forsooth has become less common.  Perhaps he wore it out.  It was used by John Locke (A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689), by Tom Paine (The American Crisis, 1780), by Mark Twain (The Prince and the Pauper, 1881), several times by Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book, 1894; The Second Jungle Book, 1895; and in Kim, 1901).  Jack London used it a few times in White Fang, 1906 and once in White Heel, 1907.  And it still lives at the edge of memory as the stereotypical exclamation of low-level entertainments with pretension.

Edgar Allen Poe used it in 1832:

“‘I lie,’ forsooth! and ‘hold my tongue’ to be sure!” (Loss of Breath 1832).

It was a neat oxymoron: a self-contradictory statement.  Oxymoron is an odd word.  The moron bit is easy to guess at, but the oxy bit only evokes echoes of oxygen.  Improbable as it may seem, oxymoron and oxygen are directly linked.  The Greek root oxy- means “sharp, keen, acute, pungent, acid”.  Oxygen is so called because it was originally thought to be the essential integer in the formation of acids, and on the same pattern hydrogen is so called because of its role in creating water.  Thus oxymoron (sharp + stupid) is a word which is an example of itself.

Oxymoron’s opposite is tautology.  A tautology is a word or (more commonly) a statement which repeats itself or which involves self-referring logic.  In the TV quiz Mastermind, the following exchange occurred:

Q: What is a tautology?

A: Repeating the same thing twice.

This unwittingly impeccable answer is cited by Alex Buzo as the genesis of his entertaining book Tautology (Penguin Books, 1981).  Buzo’s note at the start of the book discloses that he had been on a campaign to eradicate tautologies from our public speech, but had failed.  The book is wonderful collection of snippets gathered during his campaign.  Until I looked at Tautologies again recently, I had forgotten that it had been a subject of general discussion and interest in the 1980s.

The OED2 defines tautology as:

“A repetition of the same statement. The repetition (esp. in the immediate context) of the same word or phrase, or of the same idea or statement in other words: usually as a fault of style.”

(A purist might think that the first part of this is itself tautologous.  A repetition of a statement is necessarily a repetition of the same statement.  Repetition of a different statement would not be repetition at all.  Perhaps within the depths of the OED staff someone is having a tiny joke).

There are two distinct forms of tautology.  One is a statement which repeats itself in different words.  Examples from Buzo’s book include “detached aloofness”, “pregnant mothers-to-be”, “wandering nomad” and “Bargain Basement downstairs”.  It is still common to hear people speak of “new innovations”.

A tautology can also involve can involve much subtler kind of repetition, where the statement involves a logical circularity.  In Dietrich’s case, Gaudron J had to deal with the question whether the expression “fair trial according to law” was a tautology.  She said that it was not:

“In most cases a trial is fair if conducted according to law, and unfair if not.  If our legal processes were perfect that would be so in every case.  But the law recognizes that sometimes, despite the best efforts of all concerned, a trial may be unfair even though conducted strictly in accordance with law.” (177 CLR at 362)

There is a substantial overlap between tautology and its less-known relative pleonasm.  The OED2 defines pleonasm as:

“The use of more words in a sentence than are necessary to express the meaning; redundancy of expression (either as a fault of style, or as a figure purposely used for special force or clearness…”

This is the fault, so common in legal drafting, that the High Court had in mind in Muir v The Open Brethren (96 CLR 166).  The court had to deal with a testamentary provision for:

“relieving cases of need and distress and in assisting persons in indigent circumstances and in particular… in assisting and relieving persons who have been or shall be adversely affected by the effects of the War in which the British Commonwealth of Nations is now engaged…”

They said:

“There is a considerable amount of tautology in the provision. The same conception of poverty is referred to by the words “need”, “distress” and “indigent”. It is hard to distinguish between “relief” in the case of “need and distress” and “assistance” in the case of indigency.”

Pleonasm would have been more accurate, but would have sent the reading public in frenzied hordes to the dictionary.  Tautology has taken the field for itself.  Pleonasm rarely finds its way into the law reports.  In R v Johnson (1991), Millhouse J referred to pleonasm as “an elegant but not often heard word”.  In Anstee v Coltis Pty Ltd (1995) Nielson J used pleonasm un-self-consciously and without explanation, but perhaps that reflects the elevated linguistic standards of the NSW Compensation Court.  In Southern Cross Interiors Pty Ltd v DCT (2001), Palmer J referred to “a surfeit of pleonasms”, which might be either a pleonasm or a tautology, depending on your attitude.   In the federal jurisdiction, pleonasm has only been used once in a judgment.  Lindsay FM, with a very delicate eye to the distinction, said:

“…the Tribunal’s characterisation of the religious violence in Nigeria as “random and sporadic” is, if not tautologous, then, at least, a pleonasm.”  (SBWD v Minister for Immigration (2007) FMCA 1156)

But the high point must surely be the decision of the NSW AAT in Re Adam Boyd Munro and Collector of Customs (NSW) (1984)

“(The draftsman) has used the three words “costs, charges and expenses”. As they are used in an Act of Parliament, we cannot assume that each is synonymous for the other. Taken together they appear to indicate that the area of money involved should be widened rather than narrowed and that a broad view should be taken of the diminution of the wealth of the importer if that is brought about with, or is in any way related to the transportation of the goods. Together the three words form a pleonasm put together for the sake of emphasis. Looked at another way, they could be regarded as a statutory hendiadys (sic).”

The tribunal no doubt intended hendiadys: “A figure of speech in which a single complex idea is expressed by two words connected by a conjunction; e.g. by two substantives with and instead of an adjective and substantive.”  Hendiadys is obscure enough that it does not rate a mention in the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926), but it does appear in the second edition (1968) and the third (1996).  It is a literary device, mostly poetic, in which several words are joined by ‘and’ instead of subordinating one to the other.  Fowler gives as an example: nice and cool instead of nicely cool.  By this device, a single idea is being expressed in two words, one of which could sensibly have been used to qualify the other in order to convey the same idea.  Hendiadys is not apt to describe expressions such as might and main or whisky and soda, where the parts are of equal value (well, linguistically at least.  I would argue that whisky is the greater part of whisky and soda).  Much less is it available to describe a repetitive concatenation of words, which is just a pleonasm.

The true meaning of hendiadys was recognised by Beaumont, Wilcox and Lindgren JJ in Airservices Australia  v Monarch Airlines (1998):

“… even if s 67 is treated as analogous to a “hendiadys” (i.e. a single idea expressed in two sets of words with the conjunction “and”) …”

And it was even more accurately explained, and illustrated, by Heydon J in Victims Compensation Fund Corporation v Brown (2003):

“…hendiadys — an expression in which a single idea is conveyed by two words connected by a conjunction, like “law and heraldry” to mean “heraldic law”.”.


A Bit about Words: Bloviating

Warren Harding (1865-1923) was a magnificent specimen of manhood, but is generally accounted one of the worst ever presidents of the United States of America (Donald Trump is pretty easily worse, but we know a lot more about him).  Harding’s impressive style, it seems, concealed a near-complete lack of substance.  William Gibbs McAdoo, a Democrat, spoke of Harding’s speeches as “…an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” Apparently Harding used the word bloviate a lot and, because his style of oratory was characterised by bloviation, it is not surprising that he was given credit for it.  Some authors have suggested that bloviate was coined by Warren Harding, but quotations in OED2 go back to 1845 – well before he was born.  Unhappily for Harding’s memory, dozens of books dealing with language or oratory use bloviate principally in connection with Harding’s style.

Bloviate is a good-sounding word, pleasing to say but not much heard these days.  OED2 defines it as “to talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric”.  Its sound evokes the parallel idea of a blowhard.  How can we have lost such a word in a world run by lawyers and politicians?

It is generally the case that those who bloviate are found to be speaking rubbish.  It is astonishing to find how many words English provides to describe rubbish.  English does not provide many proper words for ideas concerning ideas, emotions or sex, it provides generously for ideas about rubbish.  In Tom Stoppard’s Artist Decending a Staircase, a choleric old modernist painter (reformed) offers a terse appraisal of his unreformed colleague’s latest work, which comprises a layered sound recording made in a silent,  empty room. This provokes the following exchange:

DONNER: I think it is rubbish.
BEAUCHAMP: Oh. You mean a sort of tonal debris, as it were?
DONNER: No. Rubbish, general rubbish. In the sense of being worthless, without value, rot, nonsense. Rubbish in fact.
BEAUCHAMP: Ah. The detritus of audible existence, a sort of refuse heap of sound …
DONNER: I mean rubbish. I’m sorry, Beauchamp, but you must come to terms with the fact that our paths have diverged. I very much enjoyed my years in that child’s garden of easy victories known as the avant-garde, but I am now engaged in the infinitely more difficult task of painting what the eye actually sees.

Donner could also have described Beauchamp’s work as bilge, bosh, bullshit, crap, dung, eyewash, flim-flamhorseshitnonsense, nut, ruck, skittle, slop, tosh, or trash.  The OED2 notes nearly 400 words whose central meaning is rubbish.

Tosh is not much heard these days. It was invented in the late nineteenth century and was frequently used in cricketing circles.  On 25 June 1898 Tit-Bits noted that “Among the recent neologisms of the cricket field is tosh, which means bowling of contemptible easiness.”  Tosh is an interesting word, because it has a number of other meanings apart from that which cricket conferred on it. It is a bath or footpan; it is also those items of value that may be retrieved from sewers and drains. As a contraction of tosheroon, it means two shillings, or money generally (compare Australian slang dosh); it can also be used as a neutral, informal mode of address, equivalent to guv’ or squire. Strangely, when tosh is used as an adjective it takes on an entirely new set of meanings: neat, tidy, trim, comfortable, agreeable, familiar.

Bilge is a very satisfactory word: short, luscious and stinking, it conveys a sloshing sense of its meaning. Its primary meaning is the bottom of a ship’s hull, or the filth that collects there, but it is also very often used in its metaphorical sense of rubbish or rot. Much less obvious is its use as a verb, meaning ‘to stave in the hull of a ship, causing it to spring a leak’. So Admiral Anson wrote in his account of his epic, four-year voyage around the world: ‘She struck on a sunken rock, and soon after bilged.’ And this use as a verb may also be metaphorical. In 1870 Lowell wrote: ‘On which an heroic life …  may bilge and go to pieces.’

Bilge is interesting in another way. Of the 625,000 or so words in the English language, only 11 others end with the letter sequence -lge. Three are well known and obvious: bulge, divulge, and indulge. The rest are very strange and rare:

bolge (n): the gulfs of the eighth circle of the inferno (Also malebolge. Dante did not think well of it.)

effulge (v): to shine forth brilliantly (Hence, the coded proverb: ‘All that shines with effulgence is not, ipso facto, aurous.’)

emulge (v): to drain secretory organs of their contents

evulge (v): to disseminate among the people; to make commonly known, hence to divulge  

promulge (v): to make known to the public, as in promulgate (Also provulge, and probably a corruption of the same)

milge (v): to dig round about

thulge (v): to be patient

volge (n): the common crowd; the mob (‘The mob’ is a contraction of mobile vulgaris: literally ‘the common people in motion’.)

While bilge is a good word, my favourite word for expressing succinct condemnation is bullshit. It has the merit of being terse, expressive, and naughty enough to shock without being beyond the pale. It can sometimes be heard on ABC radio, which is our linguistic gold-standard. It appears without a fig-leaf  in more than 40 judgments in the NSW Supreme Court, but only in circumstances where it is quoting the evidence. It is at risk of becoming polite however, which would strip away much of its force. In 2005 Harry G. Frankfurt published a book titled On Bullshit. Frankfurt is a philosopher, so his take on this vital subject is useful but not obvious. He discusses the difference between bullshit and lying by reference to an anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein who distinguishes between a ‘… statement … grounded neither in a belief that it is true, nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true’.

Incidentally, bullshitter was recognised by Sidney J Baker in his Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang, but it had not been absorbed into the Oxford as at February 2012.  A draft addition in the OED2 dated 1993 suggests that it will be recognised in due time.  Until then, it remains a distinctively Australian expression for a bloviator.

Bloviating usually involves self-important, over-inflated speech.  Other varieties of idle speech are well-catered for by English vocabulary.  Words denoting idle talk include (among many others) babble, balderdash, bibble-babble, bourd, braggadocio, cackling, clatter, claver, fiddle-faddle, flim-flam, gossip, jangle, jaunder, jibber-jabber, labrish, palaver, prattle, tattle, tittle-tattle, trattle, truff, twattle, yap and yatter.

Most of these are self-explanatory; some are obviously archaic.  Jaunder is simply idle talk. Claver is ‘idle garrulous talk, to little purpose’. There is a Scottish saying: ‘Muckle claver and little corn’ (muckle = much), referring to eloquent preaching which uses many words but has little substance. The pun is on claver, clover. A truff is ‘an idle tale or jest’. It is a fifteenth-century word, which seems to have disappeared some time in the seventeenth century.

Twattle (also twaddle, and in that form commoner in Australian English) is idle talk or chatter; and just as we now have the expression chatter-box, in the eighteenth century there was twattle-basket.

Yatter is onomatapoeic and self-evident, but not often heard although it is still in use. It is originally a Scottish dialectal word and is still used in Scotland. OED2 offers a quotation from (of all places) the Brisbane Sunday Mail: ‘No one in the Brisbane Valley any longer believes the tourist yatter given out by Government … circles.’ The quotation dates from May 1978, when Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the Queensland premier. Given Sir Joh’s narrative style, and his famous reference to press conferences as ‘feeding the chooks’, yatter seems to be an apt word in the circumstances.

Just as idleness of speech is well served by English vocabulary, so is idleness of character.  About 500 English words have idleness at the core of their meaning.  Words which suggest idleness of character include: bumble, do-nothing, dor, drone,  gongoozler, loon, lubber, lurdan, lusk, picktooth, quisby, ragabash, rake, shack, sloth, slouch, sluggard, toot, trotevale, truandise, vagrant, and wastrel.

Some of these are obvious, but others deserve a closer look. A bumble is a blunderer or idler, also known as a batie bum. A gongoozler is originally ‘an idler who stares at length at activity on a canal; hence more widely, a person who stares protractedly at anything’. A highly specialised word indeed, its first recorded use is in that well-known organ Bradshaw’s Canals & Navigable Rivers of England & Wales. In an attempt at survival its meaning broadened, but the word remains obscure.

A lubber is ‘a big, clumsy, stupid fellow; especially one who lives in idleness; a lout’, and it became specialised as a sneering term used by sailors to mean ‘a clumsy seaman; an unseamanlike fellow’, especially in the compound expression land-lubber.

The OED2 defines lurdan as ‘a general term of opprobrium, reproach, or abuse, implying either dullness and incapacity, or idleness and rascality; a sluggard, vagabond, “loafer”’.  Its heavy sound fits it well to the task, and the word has been around since the fourteenth century, so it is a pity that it has disappeared. Similarly, a lusk is ‘an idle or lazy fellow; a sluggard’. Cotgrave’s description  of someone as ‘… sottish, blockish … luske-like’ could not be mistaken for a friendly observation. Like lurdan, it dates back many centuries, but even as the number of people increases to whom it could be fairly applied, it has fallen out of use.

Lusk sounds like a good word to describe Donald Trump, although it does not convey anything of his self-interest or his dishonesty. And he surely is good at bloviating, even if he does not know the word.  Maybe it’s time to invent  hashtag for him: #BloviatingLusk .

The Stolen Generations

Bruce Trevorrow

Bruce Trevorrow was the illegitimate son of Joe Trevorrow and Thora Lampard.  He was born in November 1956.  They lived at One Mile Camp, Meningie, on the Coorong.  They had two other sons, Tom and George Trevorrow.

They lived at One Mile Camp because, in the 1950s, it was not lawful for an aborigine to live closer than one mile to a place of white settlement, unless they had a permit.

When Bruce was 13 months old, he got gastroenteritis.  Joe didn’t have a car capable of taking Bruce to the hospital, so some neighbours from Meningie took him to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital where he was admitted on Christmas Day 1957.  Hospital records show that he was diagnosed with gastroenteritis, he was treated appropriately and the gastro resolved within six or seven days.  Seven days after that he was given away to a white family: Mr & Mrs Davies.

The Davies lived in suburban Adelaide.  They had a daughter who was about 16 at the time.  She gave evidence at the trial as a woman in her late middle age.  She remembered the day clearly.  Her mother had always wanted a second daughter.  They had seen an advertisement in the local newspaper offering aboriginal babies for fostering.  They went to the hospital and looked at a number of eligible babies and saw a cute little girl with curly hair and chose her.  They took her home and, when they changed her nappy, they discovered she was a boy.  That’s how Bruce Trevorrow was given away in early January, 1958.

A short time later Bruce’s mother, down at One Mile Camp Meningie, wrote to the Department asking how Bruce was doing and when he was coming home.  The magnitude of her task should not be overlooked:  pen and paper, envelope and stamp were not items readily obtained in the tin and sackcloth humpies of One Mile Camp, Meningie.  But Thora managed to write her letter, and it still exists in the South Australian State archives.  The reply is still in existence.  It notes that Bruce is doing quite well but that the doctors say he is not yet well enough to come home.  Bruce had been given away weeks earlier.

In South Australia in the 1950s, the laws relating to fostering required that foster mothers be assessed for suitability and that the foster child and foster home should be inspected regularly.  Although the laws did not distinguish between white children and aboriginal children, the fact is that Bruce’s foster family was never checked for suitability and neither was he checked by the Department to assess his progress.  He came to the attention of the Children’s Hospital again when he was three years old:  he was pulling his own hair out.  When he was eight or nine years old, he was seen a number of times by the Child Guidance Clinic and was diagnosed as profoundly anxious and depressed and as having no sense of his own identity.

Nothing had been done to prepare the foster family for the challenges associated with fostering a young aboriginal child.  When Bruce was 10 years old, he met Thora, his natural mother, for the first time.  Although the Department had previously prevented his mother from finding out where Bruce was, the law had changed in the meantime and they could no longer prevent the mother from seeing him.

The initial meeting interested Bruce and he was later to be sent down to stay with his natural family for a short holiday.  When the welfare worker put him on the bus to send him down to Victor Harbour, the foster mother said that she couldn’t cope with him and did not want him back.  His clothes and toys were posted on after him.

Nothing had been done to prepare Bruce or his natural family for the realities of meeting again after nine years.  Things went badly.  Bruce tried to walk from Victor Harbour back to Adelaide (about 80 kilometers) to find the only family he knew.  He was picked up by the police and ended up spending the next six or eight years of his life in State care.  By the time he left State care at age 18, he was an alcoholic.  The next 30 years of his life were characteristic of someone who is profoundly depressed and who uses alcohol as a way of shielding himself from life’s realities.  He has had regular bouts of unemployment and a number of convictions for low-level criminal offences.  Every time he has been assessed by a psychiatrist, the diagnosis has been the same:  anxiety, profound depression, no sense of identity and no sense of belonging anywhere.

Bruce was the Plaintiff in a major action against the State of South Australia.  The trial ran for many weeks, in 2005 and 2006.

The trial had many striking features.  One was the astonishing difference between Bruce – profoundly damaged, depressed and broken – and his brothers, who had not been removed.  They told of growing up with Joe Trevorrow, who taught them how to track and hunt, how to use plants for medicine, how to fish.  He impressed on them the need for proper schooling.  They spoke of growing up in physically wretched circumstances, but loved and valued and supported.  They presented as strong, resilient, resourceful people.  Their arrival to give evidence at the trial was delayed because they had been overseas attending an international meeting concerning the repatriation of indigenous remains.

The second striking feature was the fact that the Government of South Australia contested every point in the case.  Nothing was too small to pass unchallenged.  One of their big points was to assert that removing a child from his or her parents did no harm – they even ventured to suggest that removal had been beneficial for Bruce.  This contest led to one of the most significant findings in the case.  Justice Gray said in his judgment:

“[885]   I find that it was reasonably foreseeable that the separation of a 13 month old Aboriginal child from his natural mother and family and the placement of that child in a non-indigenous family for long-term fostering created real risks to the child’s health.  The State through its emanations, departments and departmental officers either foresaw these risks or ought to have foreseen these risks. …  ”

That finding was not only supported by evidence, it also accords with common sense.  We all have an instinct that it is harmful to children to remove them from their parents.  The finding was based on extensive evidence concerning the work of John Bowlby in the early 1950s, which showed that it is intrinsically harmful to remove a child from his or her parents, in particular when this occurs after nine months of age.

At the time Bruce was given away, the Aborigines Protection Board of South Australia had already been advised by the Crown Solicitor that it had no legal power to remove aboriginal children from their parents.  One of the documents tendered at the trial was a letter written by the secretary of the APB in 1958.  It read in part:

“…  Again in confidence, for some years without legal authority, the Board have taken charge of many aboriginal children, some are placed in Aboriginal Institutions, which by the way I very much dislike, and others are placed with foster parents, all at the cost of the Board.  At the present time I think there are approximately 300 children so placed. …”

After a hard-fought trial, the Judge found in Bruce’s favour, and awarded him a total of about $800,000.  The judgment, given on 1 August 2007, is here.

There are a few things to say about this.  First, Bruce’s circumstances are not unique.  There are, inevitably, other aboriginal men and women who were taken in equivalent circumstances while they were children and suffered as a result.  Although they may seek to vindicate their rights, the task becomes more difficult as each year passes.  Evidence degrades, witnesses die, documents disappear.

Second, litigation against a Government is not for the fainthearted.  Governments fight hard.  It took Bruce’s case eight years to get to court, and the trial ran for some months.  If he had lost the case, Bruce would have been ruined by an order to pay the Government’s legal costs.

Kevin Rudd’s Labor government was elected in late 2007.  The new parliament assembled in Canberra on 13 February 2008.  At that first sitting, the Government said ‘sorry’ to the stolen generations.  It seemed almost too good to be true:  the apology so many had waited so long to hear.  And it was astonishing and uplifting to hear some of the noblest and most dignified sentiments ever uttered in that place on the hill.  It is worth recalling some of the words:

“Today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.  …

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and Governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.  …

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say ‘sorry’.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say ‘sorry’.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say ‘sorry’.  …

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.  …”

Kevin Rudd wanted to make sure there were Aboriginal people in the public gallery of the House of Representatives when he apologised to the Stolen Generations.  Tom and George Trevorrow were invited.  They had become leaders of the Ngarrindjerri community and they were internationally recognised as leaders. Bruce Trevorrow – then and still the only Aboriginal person to have been recognised by a court as having been taken unlawfully, and to have suffered as a consequence and to be awarded compensation – Bruce did not get an invitation.  The bureaucrats were reminded, and Bruce got a hurried, late invitation.  He got to Canberra for the apology, but died on 20 June that year, a few months short of his 52nd birthday.

13 February 2008 will be remembered as a day the nation shifted, perceptibly.  The apology was significant not only for marking a significant step in the process of reconciling ourselves with our past: it cast a new light on the former Howard government, which had refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations.  It set a new tone.  And it reminded us of something we had lost: a sense of decency.

Most of the worst aspects of the Howard years can be explained by the lack of decency which infected their approach to government.: not only in its attitude to Aboriginal people, but also in many other instances.  They could not acknowledge the wrong that was done to the Stolen Generations; they failed to help David Hicks when it was a moral imperative: they waited until his rescue became a political imperative; they never quite understood the wickedness of imprisoning children who were fleeing persecution; they abandoned ministerial responsibility; they attacked the courts scandalously but unblushing; they argued for the right to detain innocent people for life; they introduced laws which prevent fair trials; they bribed the impoverished Republic of Nauru to warehouse refugees for us.  It seemed that they did not understand just how badly they were behaving, or perhaps they just did not care.

One of the most compelling things about the apology to the stolen generations was that it was so decent.  Suddenly, a dreadful episode in our history was acknowledged for what it was. The Prime Minister’s apology makes no difference whatever to whether or not Governments face legal liability for removing aboriginal children.  But it acknowledges for the first time that a great moral wrong was done, and it acknowledges the damage which that caused.  The most elementary instinct for justice tells us that when harm is inflicted by acts which are morally wrong, then there is a moral, if not a legal, responsibility to answer for the damage caused.  To acknowledge the wrong and the damage and to deny compensation is simply unjust.

From that point, events could play out in a couple of different ways.  One possibility is that members of the stolen generations would bring legal proceedings in various jurisdictions.  Those proceedings would occupy lawyers and courts for years, and would run according to the circumstances of the case and the accident of which State or Territory was involved.  The worst outcome would be that some plaintiffs would end up the way Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner ended up a few years earlier:  crushed and humiliated.  Or they might succeed, as Bruce Trevorrow did.  Either way, it would be a very expensive exercise for the State, and a gruelling experience for the plaintiff.

A second possibility is a national compensation scheme, run by the States, Territories and the Commonwealth in co-operation.  The scheme I advocate would allow people to register their claim to be members of the stolen generations.  If that claim was, on its face, correct then they would be entitled to receive copies of all relevant Government records.  A panel would then assess which of the following categories best describe the claimant:

  • removed for demonstrably good welfare reasons;
  • removed with the informed consent of the parents;
  • removed without welfare justification but survived and flourished;
  • removed without welfare justification but did not flourish.

The first and second categories might receive nominal or no compensation.  The third category should receive modest compensation, say $5,000-$25,000, depending on circumstances.  The fourth category should receive substantial compensation, between say $25,000-$75,000, depending on circumstances.

The process could be simple, co-operative, lawyer-free and should run in a way consistent with its benevolent objectives.

If only the Governments of Australia could see their way clear to implement a scheme like this, the original owners of this land would receive real justice in compensation for one of the most wretched chapters in our history.

Until such a scheme is introduced, members of the stolen generations will have good reason to think that they have been denied justice.

Climate Change: Time to get Serious

When they fall, they fall like Lucifer (Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act 3)

Climate change is the single biggest issue facing the world today.

Perhaps the biggest issue that has ever faced the human race.

Climate change resists simple solutions. To begin tackling it, we must first begin undoing the complex web of factors that have existed for centuries and have brought us to this point.

These include:

  • Global structures that have been based on fossil fuels and the exploitation of cheap energy and labour for centuries
  • The inequalities and power dynamics that are the legacy of colonisation
  • Giant corporations that have more power now than ever before in history and will do anything to protect their profits: The East India Company once ran India: global corporations today make the power of the East India Company look modest.
  • And a new global economic system that has eroded the power of nation states to set and effectively enforce policy.

This complex web of factors makes it more difficult to solve the climate change issue: more interests are involved than, for example, in banning the use of CFCs in order to reduce the hole in the ozone layer.

For many people climate change is a relatively new issue. It was brought into public focus in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It was reiterated by Kevin Rudd, who in 2007 called it the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’.  And he went to Copenhagen in 2009 but somehow he lost his way after that.

But scientists have known for a long time that climate change was happening.

In the 1820s, the French mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier was trying to understand the various factors that affect Earth’s temperature. But he found a problem – according to his calculations, the Earth should have been a ball of ice.

The Sun did not seem to provide enough energy to raise the temperature of Earth above freezing. Fourier’s initial ideas, that there must be additional energy coming from the Earth’s core or from the temperature of outer space, were soon dismissed. Fourier then realised that the atmosphere, which at first seemed transparent, could be playing a crucial role.

In 1861, the Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that gases such as methane and carbon dioxide absorbed infrared radiation, and could trap heat within the atmosphere. He recognised the implications and said that these gases “would produce great effects on the terrestrial rays and produce corresponding changes of climate.”

He was right.  But in 1861 the amount of CO2 which was being released into the atmosphere was a tiny fraction of what happens today.  Although CO2 levels started to rise with the industrial revolution, when Tyndall drew attention to the subject, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was less than 300 ppm.  It now peaks at something like 410 ppm.

In the 1890s the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius identified the warming influence of water vapour in the atmosphere.  This was the first indication of a positive feedback loop: more CO2 meant a warmer atmosphere; a warmer atmosphere can hold more water as vapour; more water vapour in the atmosphere traps more heat, and so on.

In the 1950s the Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass confirmed that doubling the level of  CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to an increase in global temperatures of 3-4 decrees Celsius.

In the 1970s, Exxon knew that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet. This was years before it became a public issue.   Exxon understood what this would mean for its business, and has since spent an estimated $30 million promoting the denial of climate change and questioning the science.  Gosh: that’s how the tobacco industry defended itself: deny the science, create doubt, attack your opponents.

25 years ago the first UN Climate Change conference was held in Berlin.  World leaders came together to work out what to do about climate change. In 1995 there was about 358 ppm of CO2 in the air.

Now, 25 years later when the first global climate agreement is finally in place, the figure is more than 400 ppm.

That has locked the planet into 1 degree of warming even if we stop burning all fossil fuels right now.

Burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas is the leading cause of increased anthropogenic CO2; deforestation is the second major cause.

The rate of increase in the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is startling:

In the 150 years from 1751 to 1900, about 12 gigatonnes of CO2 were released from fossil fuels and cement production worldwide.

In the 112 years from 1901 to 2013 the figure was about 1,400 Gigatonnes: an average of about 12 gigatonnes of CO2  per year, but the rate has been accelerating:

In 1990: 22.5 gigatonnes of CO2

In 2010, 33.5 gigatonnes of CO2

Half of the greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere were released after 1988. If fossil fuel companies were honest about the damage fossil fuels cause, we wouldn’t be in the situation where we have a 5 year window in which to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

But, thanks to the work of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies who put their own profits above the future of the planet, we’ve suffered through 26 years of policy inaction. Even worse, their climate denialism has muddied the water so much that people now believe climate change is a conspiracy dreamed up by the Chinese or a corrupt UN that wants to take over the world meaning that effective national policies that will have the least cost impact are often difficult or impossible to achieve.

In democracies, these tactics poses a very real threat. At a time when entire nations are at risk of sinking below the seas, Donald Trump has committed to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement because quote: The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. Here in Australia, we are no better! The Australian Government continues to block any real action on climate change and our former Prime Minister claimed that ‘coal is good for humanity’ and our current Prime Minister seems largely beholden to the far right’s agenda on the issue: more coal and gas and no national strategy to reduce emissions or plan for a transition from fossil fuels.

This is compounded by the fact that developed countries like Australia, the UK and the US – whose centuries of reliance on coal, oil and gas have caused this climate crisis – are increasingly turning into national fortresses, leaving the most vulnerable to a changing climate stranded, quite literally, at sea.


Let’s take a moment to look at what Australia is doing — or not doing — on climate change.

A report in the Guardian Australia on 30 November illustrates the problem.  An expert advisory panel reported that Coal-fired Queensland, with just 7% of its power generation from renewables, could lift that to 50% by 2030 with little appreciable cost to electricity consumers.  The Queensland government would subsidise renewables.  The federal energy minister, Josh Frydenberg criticised the report.  The Guardian article continues:

Coal companies like Rio Tinto have called on Queensland to abandon its own renewables target to simply align with the commonwealth’s 2020 goal of 20%. But Bailey says it’s clear the state’s plan was “developed in the absence of federal policy” and with doubt that even the 2020 commonwealth target will be achieved.

He says the failure of the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to put policy daylight between him and his predecessor, Tony Abbott, shows conservative politics in Australia will be dragged kicking and screaming towards energy sector reform.

Antipathy towards renewables and acting on climate change among the hard right of the Coalition stands in contrast to moves by “conservative parties in other parts of the world”, Bailey says. He cites Germany and California as advanced economies already boasting more than 30% renewable power.

“You go to Europe, this is not an issue,” he says. “It seems to be a particular LNP [Liberal National party] Australian thing but they seem extraordinarily intransigent on it and, while we see more and more extreme weather events occur, they are stopping us from dealing with some of those big issues around climate change. …”

We are a uniquely embarrassing case on the global stage, in that early on, we put in place a fairly comprehensive domestic climate policy with a carbon price by the minority Gillard Government that was then dismantled and replaced with an impotent measure that pays polluters and has seen our emissions rise every year since.

Watching Malcolm Turnbull fade into the shadow of what he could have been is like watching the slow destruction of a man the country once respected on so many of our most important issues. He has been so unwilling to lead his party, and has granted so much power to the fringe right of his party – particularly on the issue of climate change and asylum seekers – that Australia’s global reputation on climate change has gone from global leader to global threat.

As a case in point, here is a short but non exhaustive list of what the Government has done since the world signed the Paris Agreement just a years ago:

  • Fast-tracked the Adani coal mine in Queensland – one of the biggest coal basins in the world that if developed would blow any chance the world has of remaining below 2 degrees of global warming. This is more than just a climate fight. It is also a fight over land rights and how the government has granted mining leases on indigenous land and repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the claim by the traditional Wangan and Jagalingou owners on this land.
  • Attacked environmental groups standing up for our climate and to protect our natural environment. The Turnbull Government has launched a two pronged attack on environment groups – the first attack is by seeking to amend the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act — or the EPBC. This act allows groups and individuals to legally challenge resource projects if they are a threat to water or the environment. This is an incredibly important provision – introduced by the Howard Government – that allows for a check and balance on Government’s power. The second attack is on the tax deductible status of environmental not-for-profits. This is an attempt to silence groups like and others who are standing up against fossil fuel projects.
  • Recently, investigative reporting discovered that the government censored a UN report on the extent of bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and how much of a role climate change had to play in it. Even though the health of the reef recently got a “D” on the Australian government’s annual report card for the fifth year in a row and large-scale bleaching in the northern part of the reef threatens to see it never return to a productive state.
  • The Government has launched an ideological war on renewable energy after the recent South Australian blackout. This culminated in Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg attempting to bully the states out of their ambitious renewable energy targets and pushing them instead to focus on promulgating onshore gas production. As you, probably know, gas is in fact a non-renewable fossil fuel that releases methane into the atmosphere that is 86x more potent than carbon at warming the planet.
  • And then there was Tony Abbott’s asking the mining industry to “demonstrate its gratitude” to the retiring Federal Resources Minister – Ian MacFarlane – who dismantled the mining tax. The Industry duly listened, and MacFarlane broke a Parliamentary code of ethics by accepting a $500k per year job with the Queensland Resources Council — on top of his $140k Parliamentary pension — so that he can spruik for the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
  • The Australian government actively resisted and watered down restrictions on financing of coal plants by OECD export credit agencies in 2015 because the government wants more coal plants to be built so that there are new markets for Australian coal.
  • The Government has slashed the budget of ARENA — Australian Renewable Energy Agency — by $500 million– after trying to kill it off entirely. ARENA provides grants to innovative new renewables projects and is essential to keeping Australia at the forefront of research and development. If Turnbull was serious about ‘innovation’, ARENA would be the flagship organisation of this push. Instead, the Government created and funnelled money into a new major national fossil fuel research program called the Oil, Gas & Energy Resources Growth centre. You couldn’t dream this stuff up!

Australia’s political donation laws are outdated and not up to the task, so it is hard to get a clear view of how much is actually donated. But between 2012 and the 2019 election the fossil fuel industry donated about $8 million to the major parties.

In return the industry had unbeatable access to the ears of our decision makers (including some of the most plum and influential roles in the country on retirement) and it received billions of dollars by way of subsidies, and priority access to any land they wanted to develop and.

Indirect donations and the revolving door of jobs — such as that of the former Minister Macfarlane — would show significantly more influence.

Brad Burke, the former Corporate Affairs Director of Santos, became Malcolm Turnbull’s senior strategist.

Senator James McGrath became a QLD Liberal Senator.

Patrick Gibbons was the corporate affairs manager of mining company Alcoa was Greg Hunt’s senior adviser as Environment Minister.

One of Josh Frydenberg’s advisers previously worked for Shell and then for Energy Australia.

That our Government is awash with former fossil fuel executives goes a long way to explaining why we are currently a global embarrassment on climate change. And as to why we are not addressing our biggest contribution to climate change: that Australia remains the world’s biggest coal exporter.

To use a crude analogy: if fossil fuels are the drug, then Australia is the pusher.

This is a nice little arrangement between the fossil fuel industry and our Government. By exporting our coal, we are exporting our emissions to other countries that we are not required to take responsibility for under our UN climate commitments. Just Australia’s domestic emissions equate to 1.5% of the world’s carbon emissions – making us16th in the world.

But, if we add emissions from our exported coal to our domestic emissions, Australia’s carbon footprint trebles in size and we become the 6th largest emitter after China, the USA, Russia, India and Indonesia – all of which have populations over 250 million.

Even worse is that if the proposed Adani coal mine and development of the Galilee Basin supported by the Qld and Federal Governments, we would be responsible for 705 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Opening up the entire Galilee Basin would see Australia become the world’s seventh largest contributor of emissions in the world!

It is a matter of note that Clive Palmer, who spent $80 million in his ostensible run for parliament in the 2019 election and was second preference to the Liberal Party in every seat in the country, also controls a company which wants to open a new coal mine in the Galilee Basin,  and Palmer wants Adani to get approval so his company can share the coastal rail link with Adani.

This is at a time when reports are telling us that if there is any chance of avoiding the ‘safe’ 2 degree warming scenario that NO NEW FOSSIL FUEL PROJECTS can go ahead, and that current ones need to be scaled back.

Fundamentally, we have to do better.

Globally Australia is under extreme pressure to lift its game on climate. At the recent UN climate meeting in Marrakesh, we got more questions than any other country. Including questions from allies like the US and NZ. And from countries like China that want to know why we have no credible climate policy and what we are going to do about it.

BUT, the Morrison Government, like the Abbott and Turnbull Governments, appears to be impervious to international pressure.

So, it is therefore up to us – Australian citizens – to lead the way on climate and make the moral case for climate change leadership.

We need to emphasise that by refusing to act we are missing out on the new jobs that the transition to clean energy is creating. China, Europe and the US are investing billions into this burgeoning industry, while Australia has cut its funding to that same source of new jobs.  The Palmer influence in the 2019 election shows just how short-sighted we can be.

We need to emphasise that global warming is real, and if we let it run away from us we are mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren.  The Federal Treasurer emphasises that we must avoid creating inter-generational debt.  He says this in connection with the Federal budget.  He needs to understand that climate change is the biggest inter-generational debt imaginable.

We need to emphasise that climate change provides the biggest existential threat to our neighbouring Pacific Islands and across Asia. At least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise. The rapid changes in the Solomon Islands have already seen whole coastal communities needing to be relocated. These are communities that have in many cases lived in these areas for generations.

Historically, Australia has been looked to as a leader in the Pacific region. Our recent approach to climate policy has severely weakened this view. Responding to the scrapping of the carbon tax and the defunding of climate science research bodies, the Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum said this:

“It just does not make sense, it goes against the grain of the world.

Not only [is Australia] our big brother down south, Australia is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum and Australia is a Pacific island, a big island, but a Pacific island. It must recognise that it has a responsibility.

The problems that have befallen the smaller countries are also Australia’s problems. You cannot remove Australia from the life and blood of the Pacific.”

For our conservative politicians climate change is a ‘wedge’ issue they can use against the Labor Party and the Greens to prove to their fringe right constituencies and their cheerleaders in the Murdoch press that they have the right mettle for the job.

The recent example of Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch killings shows powerfully what political leadership looks like; and reminds us that Australia simply has no political leadership at all.

We need to emphasise that climate change provides the biggest existential threat to the identity of Australia itself.  What sort of country are we?  Are we really a country that would do nothing to save the planet?  Are we a country willing to destroy our region and mortgage the lives of future generations so we can continue to live prosperous, self-indulgent lives.

What we need to do is consider the precautionary principle.  More particularly, we need to force our politicians to consider the precautionary principle.  About 97% of the world’s scientists accept that climate change is real, anthropogenic and dangerous.  Deniers would point out that science is not decided by popular vote.  True enough, although it is often useful to listen to people who know what they are talking about.  But let’s accept it: the scientists may be wrong.

Let’s give odds of 80% against the scientists: that is, let’s assume there is an 80% chance they are wrong.  But if they are right, if the 20% chance comes in, the result will be catastrophic and could have been avoided.  20% chance of a catastrophic, avoidable result is worse odds than Russian Roulette. So next time someone argues the denialist case, ask them if they are willing to play Russian Roulette with their children or grand-children.

There is another way of looking at it.  Let’s just say there is only a 5% chance that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is right.  Only a 5% chance of a catastrophic outcome unless we take serious steps.  Well, if you were boarding a plane to Sydney and you were told there is only a 5% chance of it crashing, would you get on board?

And let’s face it: if we spend the money to avoid climate change, and if the denialists turn out to be right, the worst you can say is that we cleaned up the planet for no reason…

In my opinion we have to make sure it never gets to this. We cannot trust the lives of millions of people to the whims of inward-looking fortress nation states.

That is why the current moment in history is critical. Until recently, the fossil fuel industry had a firm grip on the levers of power. They have been able to manipulate governments around the world to ensure that they could continue to drill, dig and frack for oil, coal and gas. But the world is rapidly changing.

A powerful global movement against fossil fuels is building. It is helped by the internet and a determination to build a better world.  It includes local communities, first nations people, university students, farmers, politicians, business leaders, even politicians.

This movement is forcing a reckoning on the future of fossil fuels. It was behind the success of the Paris Agreement in 2015. It is why BP walked away from drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight. It was the cause of the ban on unconventional gas in Victoria. It is behind the states and communities announcing ambitious renewable energy targets despite every Federal Government effort to undo these targets.

The potential is huge. But its power rests with you.

2019 has been a bad year for progressive causes and particularly for climate change at a time when we can least afford it.  A Liberal government was elected in 2016.  Since 2016, things have got worse, but in 2019 a Liberal government was elected, in what was widely referred to as a climate Change Election: and a great deal of the Morrison government’s success was due to support for Adani in Queensland: a push which received enormous help from Clive Palmer, whose companies intend to open more coal mines in the Galilee Basin, alongside Adani.

How embarrassing are we?

But politics is like a pendulum and we need to be ready for when it swings back. Donald Trump will stumble. In Australia, the Turnbull Government lost the faith of the people just five months after the Federal election.  Perhaps the same thing will happen to the new Morrison government, which shows a conspicuous lack of talent and vision.

But, as Shakespeare said, When they fall, they fall like Lucifer – never to hope again.

They will resist.

We need to be resolute.

We need to be strong.

We need to be ready.

We need a robust and diverse movement of Australians ready to prove to our politicians that climate change matters. The movement against fossil fuels doesn’t have money or vested interests on our side. But we have the science, the evidence of the impacts already happening, and the liveability of our planet, our very future, as our authority.

Now we need to use it.


An update: this federal election, I’m standing for Parliament

In the past, I’ve said I wasn’t interested in politics. But it’s clear to me that things need to change, and that has motivated me to run for parliament, because of the situation our community, our country and our planet are facing.  In late 2018 the IPCC issued a report which said that we have until 2030 to take serious steps to tackle climate change, or it will be too late.  The idea that we will reach a point of no return is deeply worrying.

I’ve decided to stand for election in Kooyong because I have lived in this electorate my entire life, and I don’t feel like moving.

For years the major parties have allowed people to be misled and ignored when it comes to climate change, to refugee policy, to addressing inequality. They’re driven by self-interest and by the demands of their big corporate donors pulling the strings. People are not being listened to and they are not being respected by the Liberals or Labor.

I’m standing for the Greens because their policies are centred around people: caring about how people are treated, about the opportunities we have throughout our lives, the world we live in and the world we hand on to those who come after us…and they deliver results.

Time and again, we have seen the advocacy of the Greens, in Parliament and in the community, deliver outcomes, lead the political debate and give voice to the people and issues the major parties ignore.

As a Greens candidate and as a Greens MP, I’ll have honest and frank conversations with people about how we have been let down by the Liberals and Labor, and how the Greens’ plans put the well-being of everyone at its centre.

Climate change is the biggest single issue we all face, and it too is about humanity. It’s about our survival, but it’s also about jobs, health, power bills, the liveability of our towns and cities, whether it’s too hot to enjoy our summers, whether our community parks are protected, and whether we have clean air and clean water that doesn’t make us sick.

We need plans to address climate change, to make the transition to renewable energy technology and exports that will ensure workers are not hung out to dry as the world continues to move away from coal. The Greens are the only party talking about how we deliver this.

The current member for Kooyong, Josh Frydenberg, has consistently been in a position to deliver climate change action – as Environment and Energy Minister, as Treasurer, as Deputy Liberal Leader – but he has consistently disappointed us.

When Josh Frydenberg was the Minister for Energy, he championed policies that would have meant more coal, more pollution, higher prices and less renewable energy. He was unable to grasp the opportunities that renewable energy has provided Australia. Meanwhile, his party continues to accept donations from coal and mining giants.

The renewable energy sector has been badly damaged by the instability within the Liberal Party over the past few years. By comparison, the Greens helped established the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Renewable Energy Agency and a price on carbon – they developed a world leading package that was then wrecked by Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party.

Refugees and people seeking asylum is another issue of great importance to me. To their great shame, the Liberals and Labor have used used people seeking our protection from war and conflict and the most appalling abuses of their human rights as a political tool for decades (stretching all the way back to Paul Keating).

Australia is a kind and compassionate country, yet we have been subjected to decades of this corrosive debate, acting as though offering support for people who need it is an intractable problem.

I have acted pro bono in many cases concerning the treatment of refugees. It concerns me greatly that the Liberals have lied about the treatment of refugees for years, and Labor has been too cowardly to call them out on their lies. I will be campaigning to end the major parties’ cruel and internationally condemned offshore detention regime. The Greens values reflect my values. They care about people, and they are the party that consistently stands up for human rights.

In my career, the cases I am proudest of are those where I have worked to protect people or remedy the injustice they’ve faced by attacks from big corporate interests or from cruel and craven government actions.

I’ve defended the rights of workers, of refugees, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, of our environment – against governments and against corporate giants.

That’s the challenge we are all facing right now: big corporate donors dictate terms to politicians who care more about their own jobs, and about looking after their mates, than they do about the people they’re elected to represent. This is the challenge the Greens are ready to take on.

Unlike both major parties, the Greens are a party that, again and again, show leadership, achieve outcomes and champion big ideas when it comes the issues that really matter. This is the only way we’ll deal with challenges as significant as the future of our planet and the most vulnerable people that occupy it. And that’s why I’m running. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

If you would like to support my campaign you can visit:

A Bit About Words: Split Infinitives

The “rule” against splitting infinitives is one of most-remembered but least understood of all the rules in our language. Striving against the “rule” is made all the more difficult because it is taken so seriously by those who know the rule – because they learned it in primary school, and found it was insisted on by others who had learned it the same way and had never questioned it.

But the “rule” against splitting infinitives is recent.

To boldly go breaches the injunction against splitting infinitives and has no advantage of emphasis or clarity over to go boldly.  By contrast, to cheerfully sing again conveys clearly what is an ambiguous possibility in to sing cheerfully again: in adhering to the rule, the second statement leaves the hearer uncertain whether the cheerfulness attaches to the act of singing or the fact of repetition.

What is odd about the English horror of split infinitives is that it is based on the observation that Latin infinitives could not be split, with the conclusion that English infinitives must not be split.  Latin infinitives could not split because they were in the form of a single word: amare to love, habere to have, cantare to sing, etc.  In consequence with the early grammarians’ unwavering adherence to the conventions of Latin, we daily wrestle with tensions created by the rule.

The OED defines infinitive as follows:

“The name of that form of a verb which expresses simply the notion of the verb without predicating it of any subject. Usually classed as a ‘mood’, though strictly a substantive with certain verbal functions, esp. those of governing an object, and being qualified by an adverb…”

Johnson is at once briefer and more opaque:

“In grammar, the infinitive affirm, or intimates the intention of affirming, which is one use of the indicative; but then it does not do so absolutely”

Webster is a bit less opaque:

“an  infinite verb form normally identical in English with the first person singular that performs certain functions of a noun and at the same time displays certain characteristics (as association with objects and adverbial modifiers) of a verb and is used with to  (as in to err is human, I asked him to go)…”

It is significant that Webster says the infinitive “is used with to”, which suggests that, in common with the Indo-European pattern, the infinitive in English is a single word even if its status as infinitive is generally marked by the word to.  For example, Latin and Greek infinitives are a single word, but so they are also in French and German.  So, to run is currere in Latin, correr in Spanish,  courir in French, trexo in Greek and laufen in German.

In English, where to is separated from the infinitive form of the verb, the result is called a split infinitive.  But it is fairly clear that to is not part of the infinitive at all.  Putting to one side Webster’s definition of infinitive, Oxford English: A Guide to the Language (1986) says :

“The split infinitive is the name given to the separation of to from the infinitive by means of an adverb…” (emphasis added)

The OED sheds some light on the matter in its entry for the word to as preposition, conjunction and adverb.  It’s a long entry: about 24,000 words.  At about the 13,000 word mark, it says “to before an infinitive”, which clearly suggests that to is not part of the infinitive.

By convention, where an infinitive is preceded by to, there is  typically no word between to and the infinitive. So, to go boldly is generally thought to be better English than to boldly go. In ordinary usage, the second form is referred to as a split infinitive.  But the “rule”which dictates that infinitives should not be split emerged very late, and seems to be based on the observation that, in languages like Latin, the infinitive was never split (because it was a single word, and could not be split).

In 1834 a letter to the editor of the New England Magazine declared that infinitives should not be split.  The author was identified only as “P”.  The writer declared that split infinitives were only used by “uneducated persons” and in “newspapers where the editors have not had the advantage of a good education.”

In 2004, the Cambridge Guide to English Usage repeated the rule in modified form: “Don’t split an infinitive if the result is an inelegant sentence”.

Given that the “rule” was only proposed (or invented) in 1834, it is not surprising that it was ignored by most English writers.  Shakespeare did it a lot.  In 1931 a study found split infinitives in English literature from every century: beginning with the fourteenth-century epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and including William Tyndale, Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, John Donne, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others.

Because the notion of not separating to from the infinitive has been entrenched in the language for almost 200 years, care needs to be taken.  Even arbitrary rules can gain a veneer of significance by virtue of longevity.  Fowler recognised this.

He begins his article on split infinitives this way:

“The English-speaking world may be divided into

  1. Those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is;
  2. Those who do not know, but care very much;
  3. Those who know and condemn;
  4. Those who know and approve;
  5. Those who know and distinguish”

He then analyses each group, and comments that

“Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority & are a happy folk to be envied by the minority classes; ‘to really understand’ comes readier to their lips and pens than ‘really to understand’, they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point), & they do say it, to the discomfort of some among us, but not to their own.”

As for the second group (those who do not know, but care very much) “who would as soon be caught putting their knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive”.  Fowler comments that “These people betray by their praactice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others…”

As to the fifth group (those who know and distinguish), Fowler clearly includes himself in this group and notes: “We maintain, however, that a real s. i., though not desirable in itself, if preferable to either of two other things, to real ambiguity, & to patent artificiality”

So to go boldly is probably better grammar than to boldly go because, even though they convey identical meanings, the Star Trek version draws attention to itself: just as a diner would if they were to hold their knife in the left hand and their fork in the right hand.

See how conventions ossify into rules.

A Bit About Words: Scrabble

Summer holidays open the way to all sorts of pastimes.  Scrabble is a favourite family game, and it now infests the internet in the form of a game called Words with Friends.  It is a seductive little app for the iPad which looks like Scrabble, but has its bonus squares arranged differently, presumably for patent or copyright reasons.

Having been lured into the torments of both games, I was powerfully reminded of two things.  First, Scrabble has nothing to do with an interest in words, any more than Sudoku is about mathematics.  Scrabble it is all about tactics and point-scoring; same for Words with Friends.

The second thing is that English has an astounding array of obscure words.  Most people with an interest in language know this, but we are rarely reminded of the fact so forcefully as when pitted against a Scrabble opponent whose only objective is to guess their way through every possible permutation of their letters.

Scrabble was invented in 1938 by an American architect, Alfred Butts.  Ten years later James Brunot bought the rights to the game in exchange for a royalty on every copy sold.  Butts (or his estate) must have done well out of it: about 150 million copies of the game have been sold, and versions of it exist in 29 different languages.

Since the key objective of Scrabble is to get the best score from even the most unpromising letters, the dedicated player naturally resorts to some very odd words.  For a person who enjoys words, the only pleasure in this is to discover for the first time some of the weirdest fauna in the jungle of English.

Collins Scrabble Dictionary is the instrument by which this dubious activity is put to the test.  It presents itself as authoritative, and conscientiously displays the trademark TM symbol every time it uses the word ScrabbleTM. It contains every word said to be a legitimate Scrabble word, and gives very brief definitions.

So, Amorance is defined as the “condition of being in love”.  OED 2 does not recognise the word.  Neither does Webster’s 3rd edition.  The 3rd edition of Webster is the most interesting, but was highly controversial when it was published in 1961 because it moved from prescriptive to descriptive.  Earlier editions had declared what words mean; the 3rd edition instead acknowledged the meaning attributed to words by actual people, nodding to the essentially democratic nature of language.  From the 3rd edition, Webster accepted that words mean what we agree them to mean.

Apparently the Collins people have taken this process one stage further, to the point of acknowledging words which no one uses, no one recognises and which neither the Oxford nor the Webster has come across. Words however which are a useful expedient for Scrabble fanatics.

Camisa is defined as “a smock”, which actually makes sense (cf French chemise) and is recognised by Webster 3rd, but OED 2 again stands aloof: the nearest hit in OED 2 is camisado, which it defines as “A night attack; originally one in which the attacking party wore shirts over their armour as a means of mutual recognition”, which is obviously connected to camisa, and is quite useful to know, because the added do means an extra three points.

Daud is shown in Collins and also in OED 2 and Webster 3rd.  But Collins defines it as “a lump or chunk of something”, whereas OED 2 and Webster 3rd both define it as a dialectical variant of dad.  As a father, I was troubled by the thought that I might be described as a lump or chunk.  But both OED 2 and Webster 3rd tell you that the dad which can also be rendered as daud is a verb, and means “to shake with knocking or beating”.  Neither of my preferred dictionaries acknowledges daud as a noun.

Ervil is defined as “a type of vetch”.  Vetch is defined as “a climbing plant with a beanlike fruit used as fodder”.  OED2 does not recognise ervil, although its entry for vetch agrees with the Collins.  And for devotees of Scrabble, vetchy is also legitimate: “Composed of, abounding in, vetches”.

Whoever uses jeelie, , or maungy?  Certainly not the compilers of OED 2 or Webster.  And who recalls mackle (a blur in printing)?  Who knew that an omov is a system of “one person, one vote”?  Only in desperation is it necessary to know that oot is Scottish dialectical for out – not the preposition out, but the obsolete form of ought/aught.  And even if you knew that, it is astonishing to learn that the Collins permits an apparent plural: oots.  That is odd because it is not a noun, and not even the verb ought with some idiomatic conjugation. It is a misspelling of ort, which is a variant of ord, which is an obsolete word meaning either “beginning”, or “the pointy end of something”.  Sadly, the Collins does not take us on this ramble through obsolete Scottish arcana: oots cross-refers to oot, which cross-refers to out, which it defines as “denoting movement or distance away from”: the standard preposition.  Now it is true that the Collins confines itself to one volume, so it is necessarily Spartan in its explanations.  But its (indirect) definition of oots is not only confusing, it is plainly wrong: I never before met a preposition which took a plural.

Frug is a word I was blissfully innocent of, and likewise fugle.  I probably should have known frug: it is a dance which had a brief appearance in the 1960s, but dancing was not really my thing.  To fugle is to act the part of the fugleman: “A soldier especially expert and well drilled, formerly placed in front of a regiment or company as an example or model to the others in their exercises”.  Clearly useful words, at least for a person playing Scrabble.  Nearby, the Collins has fugly.  OED 2 recognises this also, and helpfully explains that it was originally Australian military slang and means, as most of us know, “a very ugly person”.  The Collins agrees, but editorializes: “offensive word for very ugly”.  Webster 3rd adopts a frosty silence: it does not recognise fugly at all.

Collins makes arch observations about some words, noting several words as “taboo words” but nevertheless allowing them to be played.  In this regard, its standards look a little old-fashioned (in contrast to its racy willingness to allow all manner of doubtful words into play).  While it defines arsehole (and asshole), bugger and bloody without comment or criticism, it baulks at shit as “taboo”, and likewise a few other easily predictable words.  This delicacy extends to forfex, which it defines modestly as “a pair of pincers, esp the terminal appendages of an earwig”.  OED 2 is a little less oblique: “A pair of anal organs, which open or shut transversely, and cross each other”.  While both the entomological and etymological enlightenment is interesting, for a Scrabble player it is a terrific word because F is worth 4 points and X is worth 8 points.

And this is the problem with Scrabble: it is all too easy to lose interest in what the words mean and become concerned principally for their value.  A player interested in words will strive to recognise available words in the tiles on their rack, and feel pleased to discover outside (8) or aunties (7) or suited (7) in their jumble of letters.  How disappointing then that short words like zax (19 – variant of sax: a tool for cutting slates) or coxy (16 – variant of cocksy: self-important, saucy) or zoa (12 – plural of zoon: an organism scientifically regarded as a complete animal) or oyez (16; at least we all know that one) are worth much more than the cleverly selected words. And when the skilled player manages to place high value letters on a double- or triple- letter square, the difference is magnified.

I plan to avoid the lure of Scrabble this Summer.  I no longer want to spend idle time being seduced into a frenzy of debasing the language by trying to maximise the score.  Too soon, and not surprisingly, the score for each word becomes the object of the game.

Scrabble is not a game for people keen on words: it is a game for people keen on winning.  That is probably why so many lawyers love it.  But don’t play it with the 20 volume Oxford at your elbow: it is far too limited.


The Washington Post held a contest in which high school teachers sent in the “worst” analogies they’d encountered in grading their students’ papers.  Analogies, similes, metaphors…they just keep getting worse.

  1. Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the centre.
  2. He was as tall as a 6′3″ tree.
  3. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had it two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.
  4. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7.00 pm instead of 7.30.
  5. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
  6. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
  7. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
  8. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.
  9. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
  10. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.
  11. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock,like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.
  12. The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.
  13. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.
  14. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.
  15. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience,like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.
  16. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6.36 pm traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4.19 pm at a speed of 35 mph.
  17. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.
  18. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.
  19. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
  20. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
  21. They lived in a typical suburban neighbourhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.
  22. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River .
  23. Even in his last years, Grand pappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.
  24. He felt like he was being hunted down like a dog, in a place that hunts dogs, I suppose.
  25. She was as easy as the TV Guide crossword.
  26. She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.
  27. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.
  28. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.
  29. “Oh, Jason, take me!” she panted, her breasts heaving like a college freshman on $1-a-beer night.
  30. It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.
  31. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

32 . He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

  1. The politician was gone but unnoticed, like the period after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.
  2. Her eyes were like limpid pools, only they had forgotten to put in any pH cleanser.
  3. Her date was pleasant enough, but she knew that if her life was a movie this guy would be buried in the credits as something like “Second Tall Man.”
  4. The thunder was ominous-sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.
  5. The red brick wall was the colour of a brick-red Crayola crayon.
  6. She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from screen doors and would fly up whenever you banged th e door open again.
  7. Her pants fit her like a glove, well, maybe more like a mitten, actually.
  8. Fishing is like waiting for something that does not happen very often.
  9. They were as good friends as the people on “Friends.”
  10. Oooo, he smells bad, she thought, as bad as Calvin Klein’s Obsession would smell if it were called Enema and was made from spoiled Spamburgers instead of natural floral fragrances.
  11. The knife was as sharp as the tone used by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) in her first several points of parliamentary procedure made to Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) in the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton.
  12. He was as bald as one of the Three Stooges, either Curly or Larry, you know, the one who goes woo woo woo.
  13. The sardines were packed as tight as the coach section of a 747.
  14. Her eyes were shining like two marbles that someone dropped in mucus and then held up to catch the light.
  15. The baseball player stepped out of the box and spit like a fountain statue of a Greek god that scratches itself a lot and spits brown, rusty tobacco water and refuses to sign autographs for all the little Greek kids unless they pay him lots of drachmas.
  16. I felt a nameless dread. Well, there probably is a long German name for it, like Geschpooklichkeit or something, but I don’t speak German. Anyway, it’s a dread that nobody knows the name for,like those little square plastic gizmos that close your bread bags. I don’t know the name for those either.
  17. She was as unhappy as when someone puts your cake out in the rain, and all the sweet green icing flows down and then you lose the recipe, and on top of that you can’t sing worth a damn.
  18. Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
  19. It came down the stairs looking very much like something no one had ever seen before.
  20. Bob was as perplexed as a hacker who means to access but gets T:\flw.quidaaakk/ch@ung by mistake.
  21. You know how in “Rocky” he prepares for the fight by punching sides of raw beef? Well, yesterday it was as cold as that meat locker he was in.
  22. The dandelion swayed in the gentle breeze like an> oscillating electric fan set on medium.
  23. Her lips were red and full, like tubes of blood drawn by an in attentive phlebotomist.
  24. The sunset displayed rich, spectacular hues like a .jpeg file at 10 percent cyan, 10 percent magenta, 60 percent yellow and 10> percent black.


A Bit About Words: Punctuation

Punctuation holds only limited interest for most people, but it makes reading easier and it makes it easier to convey precisely the sense intended.  It has been defined as “The practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks.”

Punctuation can be vital in understanding a sentence.  Sir Roger Casement was tried for treason in 1916.  The prosecution was brought under the Statute of Treasons (1351).  Punctuation did not exist back then.  The relevant provision was in Norman French, but its English translation reads:

“If a man do levy war against our said Lord the King in his realm or be adherent to the enemies of our Lord the King in his realm giving to them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere”

What Casement had done was done entirely outside England.  The question of interpretation can be shortly stated:  is it treason to adhere outside the realm to the King’s enemies?  In other words, do the words or elsewhere qualify only the words which immediately precede them, or do they qualify the entire phrase be adherent to the enemies of our Lord the King in his realm giving to them aid and comfort in the realm?  The question was: if it had been punctuated, where would the comma have been?  Casement was famously said to have been hanged by a comma.

Punctuation can be important.

And there is a story about the House of Commons: one Honourable member had referred to another Honourable member as a liar.  The Speaker ordered him to apologise.  He said: “I called the Honourable gentleman a liar it is true and I am sorry for it.  He may provide his own punctuation.”

These days, there are commonly thought to be 12 punctuation marks, apart from spaces: full stop, comma, semicolon, colon, question mark, exclamation mark, dash, hyphen, brackets, apostrophe, and quotation marks.  To this I would add the ellipsis.

The first and second editions of Fowler’s Modern English Usage do not have an entry for punctuation, but rather an entry for stops, and a separate entry for ellipsis.

The Americans allow 13 punctuation marks: period (they do not call that terminal dot a full stop), comma, semicolon, colon, question mark, exclamation point, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, apostrophe, and quotation marks.  A couple of these involve only the slightest distinctions, and one is a unique Americanism: where we say open brackets  or close brackets the Americans say paren (short for parentheses).  And we tend not to distinguish between (round brackets) and [square brackets].  For Americans and typesetters (these words are in parentheses), [whereas these words are in brackets] and {these words are in braces}.

Punctuation is useful, and tolerably well-understood, but one punctuation mark, the ellipsis, has an interesting history.   The ellipsis is the little row of 3 dots which tell you that the sentence could go further, and that there is more than has been revealed.  Confusingly, it sounds awfully like an ellipse, which is the slightly squashed form of a circle.  In fact, they come from the same origins.

A conic section is the result of a plane intersecting a cone. In Euclidean geometry there are four conic sections: the parabola, the hyperbola, the circle and the ellipse.  Each of these is an important shape in Euclidean geometry.  Which conic section you get depends on precisely how the plane intersects the cone: if it cuts at an angle which hits the base of the cone short of the centre, the result is a hyperbola.  If it cuts at an angle which hits the base of the cone past the centre, the result is a parabola.  If it cuts horizontally through the cone, the result is a circle; but if it cuts at an angle right through the cone, the result is an ellipse.  The diagram below illustrates it well:

Incidentally, although the diagram does not illustrate it, if a plane cuts vertically down the axis, the resulting section is a triangle, but this is self-evident, trivial and not very useful.

So, the ellipse is the shape you get when a cone is cut off at an angle.  And the ellipsis is a punctuation mark which shows that the sentence has been cut off before it was complete.

Not many people know what the row of dots is called, and most of those who know it is an ellipsis are probably unaware that they are reaching into Euclidean geometry when they use it.

The most commonly used punctuation marks are the full stop, the comma, the question mark and (although some don’t like it) the exclamation mark.

Martin Speckter died on 14 February 1988.  He was an advertising executive during the heyday of advertising and, in 1962, he recognised a gap in the available punctuation marks.  Consider some of the extremes of print advertising:

  • What the…??!!
  • You can get that stain out!??
  • What are you going to do with that?!
  • Don’t you agree that we need a new punctuation mark?!!

And so on, endlessly.  They are all propositions in print which are, in form, questions but which are intended to be delivered with such intensity or enthusiasm that an exclamation mark is called for.  And advertising is the field where intense, enthusiastic questions are common.

Speckter decided that a new punctuation mark was needed, which combined the functions of the question mark and the exclamation mark.  The result was the interrobang, which looked like this:

Most of us have notionally used an interrobang in conversation:

“What the…” makes perfect sense with an interrobang as punctuation.

For a time the interrobang interested enough people that it was set in various fonts (including Arial, Calibri, Courier, Helvetica and Palatino.  Remington even released a typewriter which (for an added fee) included a key for the interrobang.  Sadly, the interrobang faded into obscurity before laptop computers became widespread so, although computer fonts are almost endless, and incorporating a new punctuation mark is fairly straight-forward, computer keyboards do not provide an interrobang, even though they provide parentheses, brackets and braces.

That said, if you are using a MS Word on a PC, and choose the Wingdings 2 font, the tilde key gives you this:

Fowler’s 3rd edition treats the ampersand as a punctuation mark.  It has an entry for punctuation, which refers the reader to entries on various punctuation marks, and to an entry on the ampersand.  Impossible! How can it do that?  Unlike the interrobang, the ampersand is found on all modern keyboards, and looks like this: &.  It is not found in Johnson’s dictionary, because it was introduced into English in the early 19th century.  It was widely used (and perhaps popularised) by Fowler, especially in his Modern English Usage, where it is used frequently in place of the word and.  It is an aphetic form of and per se and.  It is a nice irony that Fowler popularised the use of the ampersand, but did not treat it as a punctuation mark, but his 3rd edition (which is much less entertaining than the 1st and 2nd editions) appears to elevate the ampersand to the ranks of punctuation.

And what of marks like the tilde ~, the diaresis (two dots over the second in a pair of vowels, to indicate that they should be separately sounded: Noël)?  The diaresis is often confused with, but should be distinguished from, the German umlaut (two very short strokes above a, o or u which alter the pronunciation of those letters exactly as if the letter is followed by an e).  Along with the cedilla and the familiar accents found in French: acute, grave, circumflex, these are the diacritics: marks which change the way some letters are sounded.

But the ampersand does not perform the normal functions of a punctuation mark or of a diacritic.  Neither does the ubiquitous at sign, @, or the hash sign, #, both of which marks are found on modern keyboards and have rocketed to prominence thanks to social media such as Twitter.  The ampersand is also fairly common on Twitter, because it is one character in place of three.  That can make a difference.

I don’t often disagree with Fowler, but I have trouble thinking of the ampersand as a punctuation mark.  And it is clearly not a diacritic.  I would group it with @ and #, but we need a collective noun for them.  Given their prominence on social media, how about swishtags?

All modern dictionaries have an entry for ampersand, but very few have an entry for interrobang: The OED does not have it; The New Oxford does not have it;  Webster’s first to third editions do not have it; The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary does not have it.  But it is found in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (2nd edition, 1966), and in the American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition, 2000), which is a relief, because I had begun to think I imagined it!

A Bit About Words: Dead

It is hard to imagine that we do not all fully understand the word dead.

It may come as a surprise then to discover that the OED2 entry for dead occupies 14 columns in volume IV and comprises about 12,000 words.  Of course, that quantity is largely made up of quotations, but for all that it is an impressive amount of learning for an apparently straight-forward word.  The principal entry for dead (as adjective, noun and adverb) is followed by entries for various composites such as dead-beat, dead-centre and dead drunk.

The OED2 entry for dead focuses on its principal use as an adjective: describing a person or thing which had once been alive but is no longer.  But this sense allows a number of shades of meaning and includes the following:

  • dead to the world: unconscious or fast asleep;
  • dead from the neck up: brainless, stupid;
  • of species which have become extinct, notably in the idiom dead as a dodo;
  • of things (practices, feelings, etc.): No longer in existence, or in use; extinct, obsolete, perished.  For example, dead languages; or love is dead.
  • of inanimate things: e.g.
    • dead place: 1712 Le Blond’s Gardening “It is more difficult to make Plants grow in Gaps and dead Places, than in a new Spot.”;
    • dead weight,
    • dead angle:  “any angle of a fortification, the ground before which is unseen, and therefore undefended from the parapet”,
    • dead rent: “a fixed rent which remains as a constant and unvarying charge upon a mining concession, etc.”
  • Similarly, dead embers, dead acoustics.

It is interesting to see how a word which is generally thought to be the flipside of life can be applied to things which never lived and never could.

Dead as a herring dates back to the late 17th century, was a minor vogue in the mid-18th century, but its use has fallen away in the past hundred years or so.  It makes little sense.   At the time the expression was in more common use, the North Sea was referred to as the Herring Pond and was abundantly stocked .  Even today the herring stocks in the North Sea, although depleted, are recovering.

According to Funk, it means very dead.  All fish smell bad a while after they are dead.  Apparently herring start to smell sooner, and worse, than other dead fish (I cannot vouch for this) so a dead herring smells extremely dead.

Perhaps because dead can apply so broadly, it has spawned a large number of idiomatic expressions.  Some of these are obvious metaphorical uses of the word.  Dead drunk is understandable once dead to the world is understood, although it might just be an example of dead as an intensifier.  Dead wicket is as easily understood as dead acoustics.

Similarly, for a horse to run dead is easily understood.

Some other idiomatic expressions are much less obvious, for example: dead broke, dead centre, dead keen, dead right, dead certain.  Here the connection with death has for all practical purposes vanished, and dead is used simply as an intensifier.  Likewise dead beat in its original sense meant utterly exhausted (1821).  Later it came to be used as a noun, deadbeat,  meaning a worthless idler who sponges on his friends (1863), and in Australian slang a person who is down on his luck (1898).  But originally, dead beat was another example of dead being used simply as an intensifier, with no reference to death.

The use of dead as an intensifier stands interestingly against dead as a herring, where it is the herring which intensifies the effect of death rather than the reverse.

In this use, it goes back a long way.  Thomas Nashe, a 16th century pamphleteer, in Almond for Parrat wrote in 1589: “Oh he is olde dogge at expounding, and deade sure at a Catechisme.”  (Parrat was an alternative spelling for parrot.  By a nice historical symmetry, dead as a parrot is one of the best known recent idioms for “completely dead”.  It was used in the Monty Python show first screened on 7 December 1969 and is very widely recognised, although the OED2 remains conspicuously silent on the subject.)

Dead as a doornail is another idiom which is far from obvious.  It also goes back a long way.  In 1680 Otway wrote in Caius Marius: “As dead as a Herring, Stock-fish, or Door-nail.” It has curious origins.  In times before bank safes and sophisticated domestic security existed, solid doors were an essential part of front line defence of hearth and home.  Back then, doors were very strongly made, typically a solid timber frame with solid timber panels attached.  The various pieces were typically nailed together.  To make it more difficult to break through the door, the nails used were longer than the combined thickness of the frame and panels together, so they protruded through to the opposite side.  The protruding end of the nail would then be hammered over flat, making it virtually impossible to pull the nail out and correspondingly difficult to break the door apart.  Many old buildings have doors made this way, and one glance makes it clear that this was a very strong door.

But once the protruding end of the nail had been hammered flat, the nail could not be re-used: it was, metaphorically, dead.  Dead as a doornail is the idiom which resulted.

Dead reckoning is another use of dead which has nothing to do with death.  It is a means of reckoning your present position at sea (or more dangerously, in the air) by starting with a previously known position and calculating subsequent speed and direction while adjusting for known wind, currents and other forces which might affect your progress.  It is done without reference to observable fixed points such as stars or landmarks.  It is a pretty rough and ready way of calculating position, and is subject to all manner of errors.  One theory has it that it is really ded reckoning, for deduced reckoning.  This stands awkwardly with the fact that it has been spelled dead reckoning since about 1587, and is referred to in Moby Dick (1851) and in Walden by Thoreau (1854).

The OED2, which gives 1613 as the earliest use, defines dead reckoning as “The estimation of a ship’s position from the distance run by the log and the courses steered by the compass, with corrections for current, leeway, etc., but without astronomical observations” but it does not venture any theory about how it came to be so called.  Perhaps it is mute testament to the danger of proceeding that way: at sea, and especially in the air, if you run the risk of calculating your position wrongly you may end up dead.

Most of these uses are dead as an adjective: qualifying a noun. But in its use as an intensifier, dead is used as an adverb, qualifying an adjective: dead lucky, dead centre, etc.  These uses as different parts of speech pass almost unnoticed.

It can also be used as a noun: and is so used in such familiar expressions as bury the dead, loud enough to wake the dead, etc. and, less familiar, in the US slang on the dead meaning in deadly earnest.

But dead can also be used as a verb, and when so used it strikes the ear very oddly.  Most of us have hear Bluebottle in the Goon show complaining that someone has “deaded me”.  That usage sounds plain wrong, but it dates back to the 14th century.  It can be used intransitively:

  • Chaucer “Al my felynge gan to dede.”   (1384)
  • Bacon “Iron, as soon as it is out of the Fire, deadeth straight-ways.” (1626)
  • Fuller “Their loyalty flatteth and deadeth by degrees.”  (1654)

But it can also be used transitively (but only as a past participle, it seems):

  • Spenser “Our pleasant dead..With whom all joy and jolly merriment is also deaded.” (1591)
  • Nashe “Tree rootes..stubbed downe to the ground, yet were they not utterly deaded.” (1594)
  • Wilson “This‥deaded the matter so, that it lost the Cause.” (1653)
  • Milligan “You rotten swine! You’ve deaded me!” (1956)

All these quotations except the last come from OED2.  The last comes from memory but it is accurate.  It is interesting to see that it sounds absurd despite having centuries of usage to support it.

In contemporary Aboriginal slang, deadly is a word used with two distinctive features.  Despite its form, it is used as an adjective not as an adverb, and its meaning is opposite of what you might imagine: it means excellent or very good, and thus parallels the way wicked is used in contemporary slang. The Deadlys is the name of an Award to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people for outstanding achievement.