I had a conversation with Tim Costello some years ago which significantly changed my way of seeing things.
He told me of a time when he was running the Collins St Baptist Church. A guy who had been sleeping rough for quite a while had turned up at the Church wanting a feed. Tim was talking to him. The guy said that that conversation was the first time in two weeks he had had eye contact with any other human being.
I can scarcely imagine what that must be like. That man had, at least in his own mind, completely disappeared.
I have thought about that conversation often. The idea of such alienation haunts me. But there are many people in our society who have, at least in their own minds, disappeared. These are the people who, because of mental health problems, or simple bad luck, find themselves nursing a grievance that no-one wants to hear about. The more they complain, the more they are ignored; the more they are ignored, the louder they complain. The louder they complain, the more they are avoided, viewed with suspicion. And once that cycle sets in, their problems become more and more real to them, less and less real to those around them.
These are the people who ring late night talkback radio and harangue the host until even the panel operators know to filter them out. They are the new outcasts.
My conversation with Tim came in useful during the first round of Australia’s recent panic about asylum seekers. Between 2001 and about 2006, a lot of Australians were persuaded to be anxious about boat people arriving here. After all, the Howard government had told us they were illegals; that they had thrown their children into the sea; that they had jumped a queue somewhere. And the struggle to prevent the country from being swamped by this tide of potential terrorists was paraded as “border protection”.
Howard recognised that there were votes to be taken from One Nation if only he could make us fear the alien horde and position himself as our protector. It worked.
There is a story that I have on fair authority which shows clearly what was going on. Howard was about to enter the House of Representatives to deliver his speech explaining the government’s response to the Tampa. Jackie Kelly approached him in the lobby. She said that a lot of her constituents were deserting to One Nation. Howard waved his speech in front of her and said: “don’t worry – this will fix it”.
As most people thought at the time, the government’s response to the Tampa was purely political. Of course, Howard had a great run of good luck in 2001. His government refused to let the Tampa put its bedraggled cargo of rescued Hazaras ashore on Christmas Island; he cobbled together the Pacific Solution while the court case about Tampa continued. The judgment at first instance in the Tampa case was handed down at 2:15 Eastern Standard Time, on September 11, 2001. The result was not noticed in the newspapers next morning, because a group of Islamic extremists had attacked America.
From that moment, there were no terrorists but Muslim terrorists. There were no boat people but Muslim boat people, and although it was never clearly stated, all boat people were suspected terrorists – our worst nightmare. For those who did not see through the political opportunism, boat people were aliens to be feared.
Of course, if the true facts were understood, our response would have seemed rather odd. It did not suit the politicians to acknowledge that boat people were not illegal, that there was no queue, that they had not thrown their children overboard, and that they were trying to escape the same extremists we were so frightened of.
The Tampa incident in 2001 marked a turning point for the asylum seeker debate in Australia.
For my sins, I became involved in the issue. I was regularly asked to speak, at public events and private, about asylum seekers. It seemed to me that the key to the problem was to explain the facts. Naïvely I thought that most Australians would recoil at the idea of wilfully mistreating men, women and children who had done nothing wrong but try to escape to safety.
A couple of unexpected things happened. First, I got a few death threats. It surprised me that, having done a few pretty contentious cases in my career, I should receive death threats for going to court pro bono on behalf of people who were, self-evidently, voiceless and powerless.
And whenever I was quoted in the media saying something outrageous like “it is wrong to imprison innocent children and drive them to suicide”, I would receive a torrent of hate mail.
The anger and intensity of the hate mail astonished me then, and it still does. It struck me as remarkable that people would write to a complete stranger in such bluntly abusive terms. And the mail I got was seriously, vigorously abusive.
Since I had set myself the goal of converting all of Australia to understanding the facts, I decided to answer all the hate mail. After all, these people had self-identified as disagreeing with my views. My reasoning, flawed as it looks now, was that if only the people who disagreed with me could understand the facts, then they would come around to my way of seeing things. If enough people changed their views, the government policy would have to change. Clearly I did not know what I was dealing with.
Still, I resolved to answer all the mail I could. Mail that came by post was impossible to answer because, as a rule, people who use the postal service are a forgetful lot who did not include a name or address. But most of it came by email and, even if I did not know the sender’s identity, I could respond by simply hitting the reply button.
I sat up late at night answering emails: thousands of them, mostly abusive. Some of them all in capitals; lots of exclamation marks and lots of very rude words. I am no shrinking violet, but I was astonished by the rudeness of many of the emails I got. Unpopularity brings strange rewards.
Since their complaints fell into a few recognisable patterns, I had a few standard responses. Typically I would grit my teeth and say something like:
Thank you for your email. I gather you do not agree with me. But did you realise that…they do not break any law by coming here asking for protection; there is no queue…etc.
If I was surprised by the rudeness and vehemence of most of the emails, what followed was even more astonishing. Nearly all of them responded to my reply…and every response was polite. The responses fell into a few patterns, but typically they said “thank you for answering me, I did not expect to hear from you. The facts you sent me are all very well, but…”, and then they would set out other objections. I replied with more facts to answer those objections.
Over the course of thousands of bits of hate mail, I estimate that about 50% ended up saying, in substance: “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I agree with you now”; and about 25% ended up saying, in substance: “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I don’t agree with you, but it is good that you stand up for what you believe”. The other 25% remained entirely unconvinced and, I assume, continued to vote for John Howard.
What struck me in all this was the story Tim had told me. I guessed that the people who wrote to me – and who did not expect a reply – were so alienated from the community that their only means of expressing their anger and fear and resentment and confusion was by writing to someone mildly prominent.
It occurred to me then that the passion which drove their initial hostility was the mark of people who were alienated from the community: they were accustomed to being ignored, so they fall to shouting abuse as a way of getting attention. Just once listen to them, and they quickly fall back to observing the ordinary rules of civil behaviour.
This is not just an argument for good manners: I think it goes much deeper. Too many people in our community feel alienated from it and that alienation is unstable: it tends not to self-correct, but to amplify itself.
We are a prosperous country: most of us are genuinely lucky. But we are not good at sharing our luck, and we have a strange habit of thinking that those who are less lucky must be, in some way, responsible for their own misfortunes.
There are many reasons why members of the community become alienated from it. They may have been dealt a bad hand: they have been born poor, they have been badly educated, they have a mental or physical disability, they have bad luck in employment, they make bad choices which lead them into a hopeless life. Any one of these disadvantages can lead to a cascade of events which leave a person at the bottom of the pile. And when compassion turns to vindictiveness these people suffer twice for the disadvantages they could not avoid.
Because everyone, it seems, knows my name, address and occupation I get a lot of unsolicited requests for pro bono help. It has been interesting, not to say distressing, to see the sort of troubles that plague people in our community. I get a large number of requests for help. I make it clear that all I can do is offer pro bono advice. I have a group of talented interns who help me deal with the problems.
What is distressing is that the majority of people who write to me this way do not in fact have a recognisable legal or human rights problem. Typically they are people who have had some bad luck, have made some bad choices, and find themselves trapped in a spiral of disadvantage, distress, unemployment and mental instability. At that point, anything that looks like a legal or human rights problem prompts them to reach out for help. I imagine that medical clinics have a similar experience.
When I write to them with further questions, or with advice about what to do, it usually becomes clear that they have already been to just about every imaginable place for help: Legal Aid, a Community Legal Centre, government departments, their local doctor or MP. No-one can help them, because they have no single, clear problem apart from the fact that they feel alienated from everything. Part of their distress is caused by feeling so isolated.
Former prime minister John Howard used harsh treatment of asylum seekers to his political advantage in the early part of the 2000s. AAP/Julian Smith
The most distressed, and distressing, group are people who are probably paranoid schizophrenics. One person who writes to me quite often is convinced that the police, and other government agencies, are spying on him all the time and that they have a secret control order against him. He is intelligent and well-educated. He sends video footage of ordinary street scenes, at the traffic lights, in shopping centres, in suburban streets and he asserts (and no doubt believes) that various people captured on his videos are in fact plain clothes operatives – stalking him, watching him, keeping him in a kind of open prison.
This person points out, rationally enough, that such conduct is a serious breach of his human rights. And if the innocuous scenes he sent showed what he sees, he would be right. But they do not show what he sees. They prove nothing at all. He insists that the Commonwealth government have a secret control order against him: but he can offer no explanation how a control order can work, if it is kept secret from everyone.
The difficulty with people like this man is that they cannot be convinced that their view of the facts does not line up with reality. And it is hard for a lawyer to tell a would-be client that he needs psychiatric help.
The end result is that people like him get pushed from pillar to post but rarely if ever get the help they actually need.
There are only a couple of bright spots in this dismal tale.
The first concerns a lady who turned up in my chambers one lunchtime, quite distressed and wanting to see me. We chatted for a bit, but the long and short of it was that she had been receiving treatment for paranoid schizophrenia, her treatment had been interrupted; she became convinced that her treating doctor was trying to kill her with the medications he had prescribed, so she decided not to take it any more. She wanted me to take possession of the diary she had been keeping because she was confident that she would soon be killed and she wanted me to have the evidence which would identify the guilty party.
We spoke for some time. Somehow I managed to persuade her to go to a new doctor – someone who could not possibly know or conspire with her treating doctor – and agree to take whatever medication he prescribed. In the meantime I would protect her diary.
About two months later she turned up again. She had been to another doctor. She had taken the medication he prescribed. She was feeling a lot better, and realised that she had misjudged her original doctor. In the circumstances, she did not need me to look after her diary any more.
How odd that one of my few successes in the field of human rights should result from a modicum of medical knowledge and a bit of common sense.
The second bright spot is this. Most of the people who write asking for pro bono help have simply not got a legal problem. While they may have had a genuine legal problem in the past, typically it is buried in history and statute barred years or decades before. The real problem is that their lives have gone off track, and they no longer feel any connection to the society which has let them down so badly. A surprising number of these people seem to benefit from having their problem taken seriously, from getting a written advice in response to their letter, or from being listened to for half an hour.
It is a powerful reminder of just what great work the Community Legal Centres do. Underfunded and under resourced, they exist in order to help people deal with legal problems, but in many cases the real help they give lies in the fact that they extend the simple dignity of listening to a person’s distress. They help rescue the alienated. I am hugely impressed with Community Legal Centres. They deserve to be better funded and better recognised for the work they do.
Of course, there are plenty of people in the community who have genuine legal problems who cannot afford legal representation. People who face minor criminal charges but cannot afford a lawyer; people who have a good civil claim to make, or a good defence to a civil claim brought against them, and cannot afford legal representation.
Access to Justice is a cornerstone of any democracy. Access to Justice must include the right to participate meaningfully in the legal system.
The legal system in Australia is an adversary system: competing parties advance evidence and arguments, and the court sits as an impartial umpire to decide the dispute. The adversary system assumes that both parties are competently represented: that is its most basic assumption. If that assumption fails, the system fails. Our system struggles to work properly when one party is unrepresented. But litigation is expensive, and many people can’t afford it.
Legal Aid is the government’s way of making good the political promise of Access to Justice, but Legal Aid is already underfunded, and cuts to Legal Aid guarantee that for many people Access to Justice is nothing but a political slogan.
The government is spending increasing amounts on police and Public Safety Officers. Their increased numbers result in more citizens being brought before courts. Those people need legal representation, but the government refuses to fund Legal Aid properly.
Thousands of self-represented litigants come before courts every year. This imposes unreasonable strains on judges, and it makes cases longer and more difficult than they should be. It often leads to mistakes. 25% of all appeals involve unrepresented litigants. It wastes vast amounts of judicial and other resources.
People who face a court unrepresented suffer an immediate disadvantage. Only by good luck will they get the result they might have got if they had been represented. And even assuming the court reaches the right decision it is likely that the unrepresented litigant will have understood almost nothing of the process and will leave with a rankling sense of injustice. With some justification, those people will leave court feeling that the system is not working, at least not for them. They become aliens in their own land.
But they are not alone.
Since 2001, Australian politicians have won electoral popularity by taking a tough line on asylum seekers.
During the past 15 years, asylum seekers were somehow hoisted to a position of public hatred which made it politically possible for the Howard government to treat them with increasing harshness, and made it politically necessary for Kim Beasley’s Labor opposition to support these measures. Without any protest from the press or the public, the Howard government succeeded in establishing, in the courts, that the central elements of its deterrent policy were legally valid.
Not enough people know the case of Ahmed al Kateb. He came to Australia and sought asylum in late 2000 or thereabouts. He applied for a visa and was refused. He found conditions in Woomera so intolerable that he asked to be removed from Australia. Eighteen months later he was still here because, being a stateless Palestinian, there was no country where he was entitled to be and no country was willing to receive him.
The Migration Act provides that a person who comes to Australia without papers must be detained, and they must remain in detention until either they get a visa or they are removed from the country. When the Keating government introduced those measures in 1992, one supposes that parliament suspected that either of those two outcomes would be available in every case.
They had not allowed for the anomalous case of stateless people. You might think that a government which had paraded itself virtuously as committed to family values and a fair and decent society, might quickly amend the law to account for these few anomalous cases. But what the government did, in fact, was to argue all the way to the High Court that al Kateb, even though he has committed no offence in Australia, can be held in detention for the rest of his life. The High Court agreed.
Parallel with the al Kateb case was the case of Behrooz. That case tested this question: if the conditions in detention are as harsh as human ingenuity can devise, does the harshness make any difference to the lawfulness of that detention. The answer is No.
Al Kateb and Behrooz were decided together in 2004. Between them, they stand for the miserable proposition that indefinite detention, even for life in the worst conditions imaginable, is lawful. A third case decided that year held that the provisions apply equally to children.
The Rudd government in 2008 introduced significant changes in the treatment of asylum seekers. They were welcomed by those of us who felt that the values of the nation had been betrayed by the Howard government. In retrospect, it may be that Rudd could afford to be nice to asylum seekers because none were arriving. Things changed in 2009, after Tony Abbott had won leadership of the Coalition and started talking tough about asylum seekers.
The recent election saw the major political parties engaged in a competition to outdo each other in their promises to mistreat boat people. The theory is that this will deter others from seeking protection here.
Promising to treat innocent people badly is not usually a vote-winner. In most cases it would be seen as a mark of depravity.
But the argument starts at the wrong place. It starts with the Coalition’s oft-repeated statement that boat people are “illegals”. It starts from the language of “border protection” and “queue-jumping”: language calculated to make the public think boat people are undesirables, people to be feared, people we need to be protected from.
New immigration minister Scott Morrison has promised a ‘harder line’ on asylum seekers. AAP/Penny Bradfield
The fact is that boat people do not break any law by coming here the way they do. Over the past 15 years, 90% of them have ultimately been assessed as refugees entitled to our protection. Their arrival rate over the last 12 months has been much higher than the historic average, but even now it represents only four weeks’ ordinary population growth. While an estimated 25,000 boat people arrived in Australia in the 12 months to June 30, 2013, we received 168,685 new permanent migrants and over six million visitors came to our shores in the year ended December 2012. Boat people do not present a demographic problem for Australia.
Spooked by tabloid scare-mongering, both major parties have chosen deterrent policies: treat them harshly, push them off to small, impoverished Pacific neighbours. The low point of this is the recent Coalition promise to bring in the military to deal with the “emergency”.
The spectacular cost of these measures passes without complaint because it is seen as a kind of protection. While it is difficult to separate out the various components of the cost, indefinite detention costs, on average, around A$160,000 per person per year as of 2011-12. The actual cost varies: metropolitan detention is cheapest. It gets more and more expensive as the place of detention is more remote. On current estimates, we will spend about $4 billion each year brutalising people who have committed no offence and have done nothing worse that ask for protection.
It is not easy to understand how this has happened. Those of us who think Australia is better than its behaviour suggests now feel like aliens in our own land: bewildered at how quickly the country has lost its moral bearings.
Australia has constructed a myth about itself which cannot survive unless we forget a number of painful truths. We draw a veil of comforting amnesia over anything which contradicts our self-image.
We forget that boat people who come here to ask for protection are not illegal in any sense – they are exercising the right which every person has in international law to seek asylum in any country they can reach.
We forget that the greatest number of unauthorised boats to arrive in a single day got here on January 26, 1788.
We forget that the first white settlers in this country were true illegals: sent here by English courts for a range of criminal offences, and the soldiers sent to guard them, and the administrators who, following London’s instructions, stole the country from its original inhabitants who, if possession is nine points of the law, had the backing of 60,000 years of law to justify calling the white invaders “illegals”.
And we forget, too, the line in the second verse of our national anthem. For those who come across the sea there truly are boundless plains to share. For refugees locked away in remote detention centres, that line must cast light on the frontier which delusion shares with hypocrisy.
We forget how different it was for 85,000 Vietnamese boat people 30 years ago. They were resettled here swiftly and without fuss, thanks to the simple human decency which Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam showed, and which Abbott and Rudd so conspicuously lack. We forget how hideously we scarred Vietnam; how we showered them with Agent Orange and trashed their villages and disfigured their people. Just as we forget the effects of our collaboration in Iraq. But if we knew back then why people flee the land of their birth, we seem to have forgotten it now.
When today’s refugees wash up on our shores, politicians 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, the “scum of the earth”? They forget that Oskar Schindler was a people smuggler, and so was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Oskar Schindler ‘smuggled’ many Jews to work in his factories during World War Two. Noa Cafri
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 Europe, and more than half of them perished in concentration camps. Captain Schroeder was a people smuggler, but was also a hero and if the world had not been so harsh he would have been a saviour.
And we forget that, without the help of people smugglers, refugees are left to face persecution or death at the hands of whatever tyranny threatens them. Let Rudd or Abbott say publicly that, in the same circumstances, they would not use a people smuggler if they had to.
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 fallen dramatically over the past decade, as Hazaras escape or are killed. The Taliban want to get rid of all of them. We have forgotten that we are locked in mortal combat with the Taliban. When our troops pull out of Afghanistan at the end of this year, the Taliban will declare open season on Hazaras. It will be a bloodbath, and some Hazaras will end up seeking protection here.
How will we respond? Coldly, it seems.
So here we are: Australia in 2013. We have forgotten our origins and our good fortune, we are blind to our own selfishness. In place of memory we cling to a national myth of a generous, welcoming country, a land of new arrivals where everyone gets a fair go; a myth in which vanity fills the emptiness where the truth was forgotten.
During the election campaign, many of us watched aghast as both major parties promised mistreatment so harsh that it would act as a deterrent; mistreatment so unpleasant that it would seem more attractive to stay home and face down the Taliban rather than flee for safety.
It is painful to recognize that we are now a country which would brutalise one group with the intention that other people in distress will choose not to ask us for help.
The sight of the major parties competing to promise greater cruelty to boat people is new in Australian politics. We have never been perfect, but this was something without precedent.
But some of us remember how things once were, some of us see how things could be.
(the article below is one of the chapters in my book Word Watching (published by Scribe). But beware, this article contains some words and ideas which will shock some people. Word Watching contains 48 essays about aspects of language. Of course, I recommend that you get it.)
In late 1996, the Court of Appeal in New South Wales passed upon the use of the word fuck by a policeman to his (female) subordinate. Although the decision turned on other points, a question arose whether it constitutes offensive behaviour to use the word, and its variants, in a police station. The decision in Commissioner of Police v Anderson (CA NSW unrep 21 October 1996) thus provides an interesting starting point for a bit of harmless etymology.
The case was an application to review a decision of the Police Tribunal. It had found that Anderson had “failed to show respect for his subordinates”. It dismissed a charge that he had “used offensive language in a public place”. The Commissioner sought to review that dismissal, saying that he had not had a proper opportunity to prove that the Blacktown Police Station was a “public place”.
The Court of Appeal said the decision was not reviewable on that ground. Meagher JA went on to say that in any event the words spoken did not amount to offensive language in the circumstances.
The words complained of were spoken to a female officer, Constable Cowin. They included the following passages of limpid prose:
“Constable, get fucking over here…why aren’t these fucking messages on the fucking pad…I don’t fucking care, I want them on the fucking pad…” etc.
The charges also alleged that Anderson used the word “cunt” although not to Const. Cowin.
The decision of all 3 members of the Court was that the Commissioner had had a proper opportunity to prove that the Police Station was a public place, so it dismissed the Application.
Meagher JA said in addition that the words spoken were not offensive. He said:
“…Undoubtedly, the behaviour of (Anderson) was unchivalrous and unbecoming of the office he occupies. This is, however, a long way from … being offensive in any sense.”
“The evidence discloses that Sergeant Anderson habitually used the word ‘fuck’ or its derivatives; that everyone else did also; that Constable Cowin herself did so regularly. It was, so a witness said, part of what oxymoronically is called ‘police culture’. Likewise, the word ‘cunt’ (is) used from time to time, although Sergeant Anderson never used this word to Constable Cowin. There was no evidence that persons in the public area were ever offended, nor that the public area was frequented by gentle old ladies or convent schoolgirls. Bearing in mind that we are living in a post-Chatterley, post-Wolfenden age, taking into account all circumstances, and judging the matter from the point of view of reasonable contemporary standards, I cannot believe that Sergeant Anderson’s language was legally ‘offensive'”.
Fuck is an interesting word, linguistically speaking. It has the virtues of brevity, adaptability, expressiveness and is understood universally. It has a huge number of synonyms, ranging from coy euphemisms to acceptable jocular equivalents to coarse vulgarities.
Oddly, it has very few polite equivalents. Strictly speaking, there is no single english word in current use which bears the same primary meaning. It may be thought that copulate is an exact synonym for the verb to fuck, but copulate has a broader meaning: “To couple, conjoin, link together; to become conjoined or united”. In its sexual meaning, it is primarily confined to zoology.
Fornicate is the second contender, but it is, strictly, confined to sexual intercourse between a man and an unmarried woman.
According to the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the only verb which has as its only meaning “engage in sexual intercourse” is subagitate. However, that word has not been recorded in use since 1693. Not until now, that is.
In order to refer to the activity which fuck describes, it is necessary to engage in circumlocution or periphrasis. Thus we get make love to; sleep with; engage in sexual relations with, etc.
Along with cunt, fuck was excluded from dictionaries and almost all writing from the end of the 18th century until 1960, when the Lady Chatterley trial was held, and both words were welcomed back from the Siberian gulags of condemned words. Not without difficulty, it has since made its way onto stage and screen. It must be said that an activity which is so popular and widespread has been poorly served by polite language.
It was not always so. Fuck is recorded as being used in more-or-less respectable literature as early as 1500, and it is found in Florio’s Italian-English dictionary (1598).
It is interesting to reflect on the social process which results in a (nearly) universal activity having no convenient and polite verbal tag to denote it: the activity becomes very inconvenient to discuss, and so it is not discussed, at least in Polite Society. Suppose a group of intelligent, decent and literate people who wish to discuss sex. Instead of using fuck as verb and noun, they must resort to have sexual intercourse with (verb); an act of sexual intercourse (noun). Instead of the participial use fucking, they must say having sexual intercourse, and likewise for the verbal noun form fucking. And even these inelegancies involve a circumlocution, since intercourse is a word of wider application.
George Orwell wrote of the use of language to control thought (see especially his treatise on Newspeak in Nineteen Eightyfour). The same process has made talk about sex so difficult if social conventions are to be observed. Not surprisingly, a huge number of slang and colloquial words have sprung up to liberate thought and language in the middle ground between polite speech and the taboo-word.
Although the following words all describe the same thing, they have won acceptance: if not in the salon, at least in the outer-rooms of polite society: play mothers and fathers, go upstairs, make babies, get one’s jollies, play hide the sausage, get into one’s pants, have a tumble,. And then there are the earthier monosyllabic inventions: stuff, screw, roger, pork, poke, bang, bonk, root, hump.. Note that these can be used both as verb and noun. Interestingly, it is easy to see that some of these synonyms are more acceptable than others, but all are more accepted than fuck. Generally, the more humorous the construction, the more acceptable it is.
There are many jocular noun constructions which also provide the same meaning, and range in acceptability, although none of them has the versatility of their one-word equivalents: Ugandan affairs, country matters, parallel parking, horizontal folk-dancing, you know what, indoor sledging, knee-trembler. Again, as the allusion retreats from sex and approaches humour, it becomes more acceptable.
Although the following words all describe the same thing, they have won acceptance (if not in the salon, at least in the outer-rooms of polite society): play mothers and fathers, go upstairs, make babies, get one’s jollies, play hide the sausage, get into one’s pants, have a tumble. And then there are the earthier monosyllabic inventions: stuff, screw, roger, pork, poke, bang, bonk, root, hump. Note that these can be used both as verb and noun. Interestingly, it is easy to see that some of these synonyms are more acceptable than others, but all are more accepted than fuck. Generally, the more humorous the construction, the more acceptable it is.
There are many jocular noun constructions which also provide the same meaning, and range in acceptability, although none of them has the versatility of their one-word equivalents: Ugandan affairs, country matters, parallel parking, horizontal folk-dancing, you know what, indoor sledging, knee-trembler. Again, as the allusion retreats from sex and approaches humour, it becomes more acceptable.
Then there is swive:
‘swive, v. Obs or arch:
To have sexual connexion with, copulate with (a female)
I had always believed, before I checked it, that swive was a slang word. In fact, it is a sturdy Old English word, related to the Old High German sweib (meaning sweep or swing). But for the fact that (apparently) its primary meaning is not gender neutral, it deserves to be ranked alongside subagitate.
Chaucer used it in The Miller’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale, and also in The Manciple’s Tale:
For all your watching, bleared is your bright eye
By one of small repute, as well is known,
Not worth, when I compare it with your own,
The value of a gnat, as I may thrive.
For on your bed your wife I saw him swive.
Chaucer’s use of the word may not be enough to ensure its respectability. Later in The Manciple’s Tale, the episode above is referred to again:
Masters, by this example, I do pray
You will beware and heed what I shall say:
Never tell any man, through all your life,
How that another man has humped his wife;
He’ll hate you mortally, and that’s certain.
Chaucer’s use of the word may not be enough to ensure its respectability. Later in The Manciple’s Tale, the episode above is referred to again:
Masters, by this example, I do pray
You will beware and heed what I shall say:
Never tell any man, through all your life,
How that another man has humped his wife;
He’ll hate you mortally, and that’s certain.
On balance, it may still be advisable to prefer subagitate in genteel company, where clarity of meaning is traditionally subordinated to elegance. But swive is justifiable on historical grounds, and hump will not cause too many problems, as long as you sound the h.
In April 1914, Mrs Patrick Campbell created a sensation in London by uttering the word bloody on the stage, in the first performance of Pygmalion. That word had been banned from books and stage since the middle of the 18th century. Before then, it had been accepted in polite use, but had gradually fallen into disgrace. Since Shaw took the daring step of writing it into Pygmalion, it has returned to acceptable use. Only in the most proper circles would it raise eyebrows now. Its only use (relevantly) is as an intensifier.
Looked at solely as a lexical unit, fuck is a very good, sturdy, versatile and descriptive word. If our social masters could reconcile themselves to the idea that sex is a legitimate part of human existence and is here to stay, it may be that fuck will eventually be accepted in polite use. But then it would rapidly lose its utility as a swearword.
Australia is in an interesting position, right now.
An election is due during the next 10 months; the government is daily embarrassed by the plight of the Sri Lankan family from Biloela (but currently held on Christmas Island).
The Sri Lankan family from Biloela, Queensland, are Tamils. If they are removed to Sri Lanka, which the government wants (or used to want), they face a very real prospect of being attacked by anti-Tamil forces. The Murugappan family have 2 daughters. They were born in Australia. The younger of the daughters, Thanikaa, was recently flown to hospital in Perth suffering sepsis. She should, and could, have been treated on Christmas Island, but the system is so designed to make their 1000 days on Christmas Island as miserable as possible that her treatment was needlessly delayed; she developed sepsis, and had to be flown to Perth, about 2000 kilometers away.
Thanikaa had her 4th birthday in the Perth hospital.
It is interesting to see news footage of the Murugappan family on Christmas Island: 2 adults, 2 small children and 4 guards. Yes: 4 guards. That’s part of the reason it has been so ferociously expensive keeping people in detention. When boats carrying people seeking asylum, our detention system was so expensive that someone worked out that, if we handed every asylum seeker a million dollars and told them to go to another country, we would have saved money. It would have been very bad policy, but the message is important.
The indefinite detention system provides, in substance, that if you are a non-citizen and you don’t have a visa you must be placed in detention, and stay in detention until you get a visa or you are removed from Australia.
Detention is like being in prison. Some people say it’s worse than prison. However that may be, conditions in detention are very hard. The idea is to act as a deterrent.
In August 2001, a refugee boat called the Palapa was heading towards Christmas Island. The Palapa ran into trouble. The Australian government radioed the MV Tampa and asked it to look for the Palapa. Tampa was heading from West to East across the top of Australia and soon found the Palapa. It rescued the people on board. The captain of Tampa thought the Palapa might have been carrying 50 or so people. He threw a rope ladder over the side of the Tampa and was astonished when 438 people climbed up it.
The people rescued by Tampa were mostly Hazaras from Afghanistan. Hazaras are visually distinctive: they look oriental. And many years after entering the place now known as Afghanistan, they converted from Bhuddism to Islam. (In the 6th century AD, they had built the famous Bamiyan Bhuddas, which were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001). The destruction of the Bamiyan Bhuddas gives an indication of the Taliban attitude to Hazaras: Hazaras from Afghanistan are as likely to be genuine refugees as Jews fleeing Germany in the late 1930s.
When the Tampa tried to put its unexpected passengers ashore on Christmas Island, the Australian government sent out the SAS, who took control of the Tampa at gunpoint. A standoff resulted. Action on behalf of the asylum seekers was started in the Federal Court of Australia. Judgment was given in Melbourne at 2.15pm on 11 September 2001. Hours later, the attack on America happened, and Australia’s then-Prime Minister, John Howard started calling boat-people “illegals”.
Later, Scott Morrison (now PM, then Immigration Minister under Tony Abbott) called the whole exercise “border protection”.
So, if a person from another country enters Australia, and does not have a visa, they would be put in immigration detention: even Hazaras from Afghanistan.
We jail people who have committed an offence. By calling boat-people “illegals”, the government creates the impression that we are locking up criminals. It’s a lie.
People who come to Australia seeking protection do not commit any offence. Australia puts innocent people in detention (jail) for years on end with no offence, no charge , no trial. If it was Russia doing it, we would be outraged.
Scott Morrison brags that he “stopped the boats”. He is much quieter about the fact that he locks up innocent people for years on end.
Is it just a matter of time before he creates a jailable offence of speaking against the government? There is a clear indication of this. He wants to be able to deregister charities which speak against his government. This is to be done by regulation.
Beware: this is the government stepping down a path which is dangerous for all of us.
Home Affairs was established on 20 December 2017. It combines the national security, law enforcement and emergency management functions of the A-G’s Department, the transport security functions of the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, the counterterrorism and cybersecurity functions of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the multicultural affairs functions of the Department of Social Services, and the entire Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It controls the Federal Police, Border Force and ASIO.
Home Affairs is the most powerful ministry in the country, and it is headed by Peter Dutton.
It is easy to argue that no Minister should be entrusted with such vast powers. But the fact that those powers are in Peter Dutton’s hands is seriously alarming. He is arguably the most powerful person in the country. It is hard to imagine any member of Federal Parliament less suited to have, and exercise, the sort of powers Peter Dutton now has.
Ministerial powers are subject to limits. The Rule of Law means that the limits are subject to supervision by the judicial system. Most Ministers understand that. Dutton apparently does not. Ministerial decisions can be challenged in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) and, ultimately, in the Courts. Challenging a Ministerial decision is not simple, but the AAT is a bit more “litigant-friendly” than the Courts: the AAT makes challenging a Ministerial decision a bit easier for people who can’t afford a lawyer.
In the middle of 2017, Dutton led an attack on the AAT, saying that it was making “silly” rulings (presumably, this means decisions he did not like).
“Judicial processes are very important,” he said. “(The legislation) still allows people to have their day in court. But it doesn’t give rise to the silly situations which we’re seeing at the moment…”.
He advocated legislation which would give him the final say over citizenship decisions, subject only to the Courts. He already has the final say over visa cancellations.
When Dutton took over the Immigration portfolio from Scott Morrison in December 2014, he adopted Morrison’s misleading characterisation of boat people as “illegal”. Morrison had decreed that the people referred to in the Migration Act as “Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals” should in future be called “Illegal Maritime Arrivals”. Dutton has picked up the idea, even though it is a lie.
Dutton shamelessly uses the “illegal” tag.
At the very least, this shows ignorance of some basic facts; at worst, it shows dishonesty. Boat people do not commit any offence by arriving in Australia without a visa, without an invitation, seeking to be protected from persecution. On the contrary, they are exercising a right acknowledged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Article 14 of the Universal Declaration starts this way:
“ Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Australia made a significant contribution to the creation of the Universal Declaration, and an Australian (Doc Evatt) presided over the General Assembly of the UN when it was adopted on 10 December 1948.
“It’s now been three years since a people smuggler’s boat loaded with Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMAs) reached Australia. …
Had the Coalition not mounted OSB – the boats and illegal arrivals would still be coming…”
On 31 October 2017 he said:
“The Coalition Government has had a clear and consistent policy since coming to office; no-one who attempts to enter Australia illegally by boat will ever settle here.”
Dutton is in charge of the offshore detention of boat people on Nauru and on Manus Island, PNG. Most of them have been assessed as refugees, legally entitled to protection. The Refugees Convention means they can’t be sent back to their country of origin, where they were being persecuted, and Dutton has made it clear that they will never be allowed to come to Australia. But Nauru and PNG are not having much luck finding other countries to send them to. Billions of dollars are spent because Peter Dutton is too cruel (or perhaps just too ignorant) to allow them to come here. Presumably he justifies this by calling them “illegal” (which is false) and the whole exercise is called “border protection” (which is misleading).
Instead, Dutton told the public these refugees had received “an enormous amount of support” from Australian taxpayers for a long time, saying “there is a very different scenario up on Nauru and Manus than people want you to believe”. Taxes cover the absurd cost of maintaining offshore processing arrangements. It costs about $570,000 per refugee per year to keep boat people on Manus or Nauru. So in that sense refugees receive support from taxpayers.
UN officials have repeatedly criticised Australia’s refugee policies. Our treatment of refugees on Manus breaches our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. Every international NGO that has looked at our treatment of refugees has criticised us for it.
Dutton’s moral horizons can be seen by considering several recent cases. The boat people on Nauru include children. Most of them have been there for 4 years or more. Some of them have been driven to self-harm or attempted suicide. The medical facilities available on Nauru are simply not able to cope with young children who are self-harming at the age of 10 or 11 years. In recent months, several young children have been in such desperate need that applications were made in the Australian courts for the children to be brought to Australia for proper medical treatment. Peter Dutton paid lawyers to resist those applications.
It is important to understand what this means. Peter Dutton, who spends billions of dollars to keep innocent people in misery for years, spends more taxpayer dollars to resist attempts get appropriate medical care for the children the Minister has harmed.
Dutton also criticises lawyers who try to help the people he is harming. In August 2017, Dutton declared that lawyers helping Asylum Seekers were “un-Australian”. I have done thousands of hours of (unpaid) work in an attempt to alleviate the mistreatment of boat people. Speaking for myself, Dutton’s comment made being “un-Australian” a badge of honour.
In September 2017, referring to the first group of refugees to leave Manus Island for resettlement in the United States, Dutton said “We have been taken for a ride, I believe, by a lot of the advocates and people within Labor and the Greens who want you to believe this is a terrible existence”.
It is difficult for Australians to get into the processing centres on Manus and Nauru. We can’t see these places for ourselves. If Peter Dutton really thinks life for refugees on Manus or Nauru is better than “people within Labor and the Greens” say, then perhaps he will explain why refugees have been attacked and killed in those places. Perhaps he will explain why international observers have been so critical of conditions in those places. Perhaps he will explain why so many refugees in those places have suffered such serious physical and mental damage.
In October 2017, Dutton accused advocates and the Greens of “aiding and abetting” detainees to force the government to change its policy through “subterfuge”.
In November 2017, Dutton attacked New Zealand’s offer of $3 million funding to provide essential services on Manus Island, saying the “money would be better spent elsewhere”. He also repeatedly rejected New Zealand’s offers of resettlement for people on Manus. He attacked New Zealand, saying it benefited from Australia’s tough border policies without paying for them:
“If new boats arrive tomorrow those people aren’t going to Auckland, they’re going to Nauru”.
Dutton also threatened that, if New Zealand and PNG bypassed Australia to strike an agreement to resettle refugees held on Manus, it would have “consequences for Australia’s relationship with both countries”.
On 7 April 2018 Dutton called for “like-minded” countries to come together and review the relevance of the 1951 Refugees Convention.
So, here it is: Australia’s most powerful Minister is wilfully mistreating innocent people at vast public expense. He is waging a propaganda war against refugees and against the people who try to help them. And he is trying to persuade other countries to back away from international human rights protection.
He tries to make it seem tolerable by hiding it all away in other countries, so that we can’t see the facts for ourselves.
Dutton has often expressed concern about people drowning in their attempt to get to Australia. But his concern about people drowning is is a lie. If he was genuinely concerned about people drowning, he might treat survivors decently. Instead, if they don’t drown, he punishes them: he puts them in offshore detention for years. He does this in order to deter others from trying to seek safety in Australia.
Perhaps the most worrying thing about Peter Dutton is not his dishonesty, or his stupidity, but his propaganda war which, already, has led the Australian people to accept things which would have been unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago. He has blinded us to the fact that we are now deliberately harming innocent men, women and children, in ways that are completely inconsistent with our view of ourselves. After all, aren’t we the nation that believes in a fair go for everyone?
By small degrees Dutton is inducing Australians to tolerate the intolerable. His campaign to make cruelty acceptable has the potential to lead Australia to very dark places.
Economic rationalists would point out that most artists are economically unviable. That is true, unfortunately. 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 makes no sense 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, even allowing that a 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.
So: does art actually matter?
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 Grandes 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 da Vinci had never painted; if Beethoven or Shostakovitch had never written a note of music?
Would the world be poorer if Shakespeare and Balzac had never written?
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 price of unique paintings is a quirk of the market for commodities: the value of the works is spiritual.
Imagine this: a wealthy investor buys Mona Lisa, and announces that he intends to destroy it, privately. Most people would feel a sense of … loss.
Because a work of art is more than just a physical thing capable of being bought and sold. In important ways, every work of art carries part of our shared culture and that fact 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.
It starts with one of his most memorable and magical poems: Ode to a Nightingale.
In a remarkable short story by Frederic Raphael, the author speaks of a man who, early in his university days, 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 we see the result of trading the valuable for the priceless.
Art connects us to the world, to each other, to others we can never meet or know. It affirms our relationship to the rest of humanity.
The wider our encounter with art, the richer that connection becomes. This might be what Stoppard had in mind when a character in one of his plays says that “in any society of a thousand people there will be 900 doing the work, 90 doing well, nine doing good and one lucky person will be an artist.”
The redoubtable (but flawed) F.E. Smith (1872-1930) was the subject of a few biographies: FE (hagiography, by his son); Lord Birkenhead by ‘Ephesian’ (Bechofer Roberts); The Glittering Prizes by William Camp – distinctly not hagiography. Incidentally, the phrase ‘the glittering prizes’ is a quotation from F.E. Smith, who said in a Rectorial address in Glascow in November 1923:
The world continues to offer glittering prizes to those with stout hearts and strong swords.
Incidentally, in 1976 ‘The Glittering Prizes’ was the name of a 6-part TV mini-series with Tom Conti. That is, arguably, the best form of quotation, although I do not think the author of the expression was identified: possibly because it was set in Cambridge, and Smith went to Oxford.
The most recent biography of F.E Smith is by John Campbell, published in 1991.
Given that our trade is words, lawyers are significantly under-represented in the matter of quotations. Perhaps the best remembered is the exchange between Judge Willis and F.E. Smith in a case in which the Plaintiff, a young boy, had been blinded because of the alleged negligence of the tramways company, for whom Smith was acting. When the judge heard that the boy had been blinded he suggested that the boy stand up, so the jury could see him better. Smith did not like the idea. This exchange followed:
FE: Perhaps Your Honour would like to have the boy passed around the jury box.
Judge: That is a most improper suggestion.
FE: It was provoked by a most improper suggestion.
Judge: Mr. Smith, have you ever heard of a saying by Bacon – the great Bacon – that youth and discretion are ill-wedded companions?
FE: Indeed I have, Your Honour; and has Your Honour ever heard of a saying by Bacon – the great Bacon – that a much talking judge is like an ill-tuned cymbal?
Judge: You are extremely offensive, young man .
FE: As a matter of fact we both are; the only difference between us is·that I am trying to be and you can’t help it …
It is hard to know whether the exchange has been polished up after the event, but it appears in substantially identical form in the biographies by Bechofer Roberts (1926) and Campbell (1991)
In a later case, Judge Willis and FE had this shattering exchange:
Judge: Whatever do you suppose I am on the bench for, Mr Smith?
FE: It is not for me, M’lud, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence
My favourite legal quotation of all times was made by John Clerk. He was a very bright barrister from Edinburgh later appointed to the Supreme Court as Lord Eldin – Eldin not Eldon, although Lord Eldon’s name before he was elevated to the peerage was John Scott).
Anyway, he was so bright that he was sent to London, as junior counsel, to argue a House of Lords appeal by himself – not led by a silk.
It was an appeal which involved the Water Act, so he used the word water quite a lot, and fairly distinctively because of his Scottish accent.
At one point, one of the Law Lords (who should have known better) said to him
“Tell me Mr Clerk, in Scotland do you spell water with two t’s?”
His reply was quick and dangerous, but brilliant:
“No my Lord, we do not. But we still spell manners with two n’s”
It’s the sort of reply which might only occur to most people a couple of weeks later.
But it is also the sort of reply which most of us would be proud to think up on the spot and have the courage to say it.
There are very few advocates who are the subject of biographies published decades after their death. The only other who comes to mind is the dazzling, but imperfect, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) who was also the subject of a few biographies, the first in 1943 and the latest in 1980. It was Darrow who devised and ran the famous Scopes case, also known as the Monkey Trial, and he acted for Dickie Loeb and Nathan Leopold in their famous death penalty case in Chicago in 1924. Darrow once said:
I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure – that is all that agnosticism means.
Darrow was famous for his opposition to the death penalty. He is, for obvious reasons, referred to extensively in Life Plus Ninety-nine Years by Nathan Leopold (Greenwood Press 1957). He is quoted as saying:
I have never wanted to see anybody die, but there are a few obituary notices I have read with pleasure.
There are many books of quotations. My favourites include: The Book of Insults and Irreverent Quotations (Hook and Kahn); The Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Wordsworth Library); The Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Watson); Cassell’s Book of Humourous Quotations ; Collins Dictionary of Literary Quotations ; Magill’s Quotations in Context; The Thesaurus of Quotations (Fuller); Brewer’s Famous Quotations (Rees); History in Quotations (Cohen and Major); The International Thesaurus of Quotations (Tripp); The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (ed. Knowles); The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (4th ed) ; Simpsons Contemporary Quotations (Simpson and Boorshin); The Dictionary of Australian Quotations (Murray-Smith); The Dictionary of Biographical Quotations (Winke & Kenin); The Dictionary of Insulting Quotations (Green).
It is not easy to find quotations by lawyers. In the books noted above, there are a few quotes by F.E Smith (later Lord Birkenhead), but in 1985 The Quotable Lawyer by Shrager and Frost was published by New England Publishing. And books of anecdotes are common enough in the legal profession (I have 47 of them). If a lawyer is important enough to be the subject of a biography, that book will inevitably include some quotations by the subject of the biography. Even then, it’s thin pickings.
This lengthy nod to clever quotations from lawyers is by way of introducing one of the most famous quotations of all time: not by a lawyer, but by the famous physicist Isaac Newton. In a letter to Robert Hooke on 5 February 1676:
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”
The quotation is so famous that the phrase ’the shoulders of giants’ was recently inscribed on the English 2 pound coin.
But there is more to it. Isaac Newton is arguably the most famous scientist of all time. He published the laws of motion and universal gravitation in his famous book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687), which is generally referred to simply as “Principia Mathematica”.
Much of Newton’s adult life was spent pursuing what would now be considered mysticism.
What is less commonly known in connection with Newton’s famous observation is that Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was a very famous scientific rival of Newton (1643-1726) and, like Newton, had developed many significant scientific principles. He was a polymath (like Newton) and in 1996 was described by Alan Chapman as ‘England’s Leonardo’. He built the earliest Gregorian telescope, and observed the rotations of the planets Mars and Jupiter. In 1665 published Micrographia, which prompted microscopic investigations. His observations of microscopic fossils led him to endorse biological evolution: several centuries ahead of Charles Darwin.
Hooke proposed that gravity heeds an inverse square law, and first hypothesised such a relation in planetary motion, too: a principle which Newton propounded in his law of universal gravitation. That was the underlying cause of the rivalry between Newton and Hooke.
In addition to their notorious scientific rivalry, Robert Hooke was very short, so he could not have been considered a ‘giant’.
It has always struck me as odd that a comment, so famous that it was inscribed on an English coin, was originally intended as an insult. At least John Clerk did not try to hide his purpose.
Quotations by Hooke are hard to find. That said, quotations by Newton are relatively rare (apart from the ‘shoulders of giants’ quote), and most books of quotations ignore some of the best observations by lawyers.
(For those who are interested in gathering quotations by lawyers R.E. Megarry wrote Miscellany At Law (1955), A Second Miscellany At Law (1973) and A New Miscellany At Law (2005). Although they do not contain any of the quotations above, they contain many excellent legal stories, across hundreds of years.)
Most Australians would, if asked, probably identify Magna Carta as the foundation stone of our legal system. They would have a vague sense that Magna Carta was the start of it in England and that, in 1788, the system built on Magna Carta was transplanted into Australia.
Magna Carta is mostly a myth, but provides a great example of an enduring truth: that in political matters, mythology is far more important than facts.
Popular history tells us that Magna Carta was sealed on the meadow at Runnymede on 15 June, 1215. So, on 15 June 2015, we commemorated 800 years since it was sealed.
In fact, we acknowledged the wrong document and the wrong day.
The document that was sealed on 15 June 1215 was the Articles of the Barons. The document we think of as Magna Carta was based on the Articles of the Barons and was prepared and engrossed a few days later, some say on 19 June 1215.
But in any event, England switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, so as to bring the calendar back into synchronisation with the real world. When that switch happened, eleven days simply disappeared. So while it is true that the Articles of the Barons, later called Magna Carta, was signed on 15 June 1215, that day was 800 years minus 11 days before 15 June 2015. The date which is exactly 800 years after the signing of the Articles of the barons was actually 26 June this year.
But this does not matter: it is the symbolism of the thing that really counts, and I doubt that anyone thought about Magna Carta on 26 June 2015.
Winston Churchill wrote about the signing of Magna Carta in volume 1 of his great History of the English Speaking Peoples:
“On a Monday morning in June, between Staines and Windsor, the barons and Churchmen began to collect on the great meadow at Runnymede. An uneasy hush fell on them from time to time. Many had failed to keep their tryst; and the bold few who had come knew that the King would never forgive this humiliation. He would hunt them down when he could, and the laymen at least were staking their lives in the cause they served. They had arranged a little throne for the King and a tent. The handful of resolute men had drawn up, it seems, a short document on parchment. Their retainers and the groups and squadrons of horsemen in sullen steel kept at some distance and well in the background. For was not armed rebellion against the Crown the supreme feudal crime? Then events followed rapidly. A small cavalcade appeared from the direction of Windsor. Gradually men made out the faces of the King, the Papal Legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and several bishops. They dismounted without ceremony. Someone, probably the Archbishop, stated briefly the terms that were suggested. The King declared at once that he agreed. He said the details should be arranged immediately in his chancery. The original “Articles of the Barons” on which Magna Carta is based exist to-day in the British Museum. They were sealed in a quiet, short scene, which has become one of the most famous in our history, on June 15, 1215. Afterwards the King returned to Windsor. Four days later, probably, the Charter itself was engrossed. In future ages it was to be used as the foundation of principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles dreamed.”
King John was the youngest of five sons of Henry II. His oldest brother, Richard, was king, but went off to fight the crusades, where he earned his nickname “Lionheart”. John’s elder brothers William, Henry and Geoffrey died young. Richard died in 1199, and John became king.
Richard and John both incurred huge expenses in war, especially in suppressing rebellion in their French domains in Normandy and Anjou. Both leaned on their nobles to support the expense. John, who had managed to make himself deeply unpopular, met resistance. John made increasing demands for taxes of various sorts, including scutage – money paid to avoid military service – and he sold wardships and heiresses for large sums. Henry II and Richard had done the same, but John’s nobles resisted. By May 1215, the barons had occupied London and made a series of demands.
In June 1215, the barons met King John at Runnymede. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, played an important role in mediating the dispute and eventually the Articles of the Barons were prepared and sealed.
Before it became known as Magna Carta, it was set aside. Two months after the Articles of the Barons were signed King John (who was not a reliable person) prevailed on Pope Innocent III to declare the Deed invalid. The Pope said it was “not only shameful and base but illegal and unjust.” He declared it null and void, and ordered King John not to observe it. This was in August 1215, just 10 weeks after the great symbolic meeting at Runnymede.
The barons were not happy.
John died in October 1216. His son Henry was only nine years old. Henry’s advisors saw that re-issuing the Charter in modified form would help keep the young king in power. So an amended version was issued in 1217, under the title Charter of Liberties. At the same time the Charter of the Forest was issued. The Charter of Liberties was the bigger of the two, and soon became known as the Great Charter: Magna Carta.
When he had come of age, Henry III swore his allegiance to a modified version of Magna Carta. This took place on 11 February 1225, so that is probably the most appropriate date to observe. The 1225 version of Magna Carta more closely resembles the document which has been so venerated for so long.
Perhaps people will celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta on 11 February 2025, or perhaps on 22 February 2025 to allow for the change in calendars. But probably not.
The 1215 version of Magna Carta includes many provisions which are concerned with taxes. For example:
(2) If any earl, baron, or other person that holds lands directly of the Crown, for military service, shall die, and at his death his heir shall be of full age and owe a ‘relief’, the heir shall have his inheritance on payment of the ancient scale of ‘relief’.
(12) No ‘scutage’ or ‘aid’ may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable ‘aid’ may be levied. ‘Aids’ from the city of London are to be treated similarly.
(15) In future we will allow no one to levy an ‘aid’ from his free men, except to ransom his person, to make his eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry his eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable ‘aid’ may be levied.
(27) If a free man dies intestate, his movable goods are to be distributed by his next-of-kin and friends, under the supervision of the Church. The rights of his debtors are to be preserved.
(28) No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this.
(30) No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent.
And there are plenty of surprises:
(4) The guardian of the land of an heir who is under age shall take from it only reasonable revenues, customary dues, and feudal services. …
(5) For so long as a guardian has guardianship of such land, he shall maintain the houses, parks, fish preserves, ponds, mills, and everything else pertaining to it, from the revenues of the land itself. When the heir comes of age, he shall restore the whole land to him, stocked with plough teams and such implements of husbandry as the season demands and the revenues from the land can reasonably bear.
(6) Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be’ made known to the heir’s next-of-kin.
(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.
(11) If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands. The debt is to be paid out of the residue, reserving the service due to his feudal lords. Debts owed to persons other than Jews are to be dealt with similarly.
(33) All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.
(35) There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.
The only part of Magna Carta which is widely remembered (if that is the right word) is found in Articles 39 and 40:
(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Together, these became Article 29 of the 1225 version:
(29) No free-man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or dispossessed, of his free tenement, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed; nor will we condemn him, nor will we commit him to prison, excepting by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the laws of the land. To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.
Considering the mystic significance which is attached to Magna Carta these days (and especially in 2015) it is interesting to note that Shakespeare, in his play King John, does not mention it at all. He mentions Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who played a large part in compiling the document. But he mentions Langton just once, and in passing. He does not mention Runnymede.
Sir Edward Coke
So why do we honour it so greatly? The short answer is: Sir Edward Coke. And here we embark on a truly remarkable story of a new reality being formed as myth is piled on myth.
Sir Edward Coke entered the English parliament in 1589, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1594, he became Attorney-General and still held that role when James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603.
Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had famously broken from the Church of Rome because he wanted a divorce. The formation of the Church of England led to increasing oppression of English Catholics. The oppression sharpened during the reign of Elizabeth. Elizabeth died without leaving an heir or any obvious successor. When James VI of Scotland was cautiously chosen as Elizabeth’s successor, the oppressed Roman Catholics of England had hopes that James might treat them more leniently. After all, James was married to Anne of Denmark who, although a Protestant, had converted to Catholicism.
But these hopes were dashed, and a group of well-educated, pious, Catholic nobles conceived a bold plan to resist the increasing oppression: they would blow up the Houses of Parliament on the day of its opening. The opening of James’ first Parliament was delayed because the Plague had spread through London. For the opening of the Parliament, the Royal family, the Lords and the Commons would collect together in the Great Hall at Westminster. Eventually the date for the opening of Parliament was set for 5 November 1605. But word of the conspiracy got out. The night before Parliament was due to open, the whole Parliament building was searched. In a room immediately below the great hall, a man who called himself John Johnson was discovered. He had 36 barrels of gunpowder: enough to blow the whole place sky-high.
John Johnson was also known as Guy Fawkes.
King James personally authorised the torture of John Johnson, in an attempt to identify the other conspirators. Torture was unlawful then, as it is now. But King James considered that he ruled above the law. He adhered to the theory of the Divine Right of Kings. In this, we see the elemental force which was at play in the Constitutional struggles of the 17th Century. The key question was this: Does the King rule above the law, or is he subject to it?
The trial of the Gunpowder conspirators began on 26 January 1606. Sir Edward Coke, as Attorney-General, prosecuted the case. He won. He was a favourite of King James because, on many occasions, he had supported King James’s view that the King ruled above the law. Later in 1606 he was rewarded for his loyalty and good service by being appointed Chief Justice of Common Pleas.
On the bench, Coke’s view seems to have changed. This sometimes happens to judges, to the great irritation of governments. In a number of cases, Coke CJ insisted that the King ruled subject to law. It is a principle we take for granted these days, but in the early 17th century it was hotly contested. He rejected King James’ interference with the operation of the Courts. The King dismissed him from office in 1616. He re-entered Parliament.
The Petition of Right
In 1627 (the second year of the reign of Charles I) the King ordered the arrest of Sir Thomas Darnel and four others who had refused to advance a compulsory “loan” to the King. They sought habeas corpus. The jailer answered the suit by saying the five were held “per speciale mandatum Regis” [by special order of the King].
Darnel’s case in 1627 prompted Coke to draft for Parliament the Petition of Right (1628). The Petition raised, very politely, various complaints about the King’s conduct, including that:
he had been ordering people, like Darnel, to be jailed for failing to lend him money;
he had been billeting soldiers in private houses throughout the country against the wishes of the owners;
he had circumvented the common law by appointing commissioners to enforce martial laws and those commissioners had been summarily trying and executing “such soldiers or mariners or other desolate persons joining with them as should commit … (any) outrage or misdemeanour whatsoever …”;
he had been exempting some from the operation of the common law.
The Parliament prayed that the King “would be graciously pleased for the further comfort and safety of your people, to declare … that in the things aforesaid all your officers and ministers shall serve you according to the laws and statutes of this realm …”.
The Petition of Right reflected Coke’s distilled thoughts about English law and politics. In his most famous work, The “Institutes of the Lawes of England”, Coke elevated Magna Carta to previously unrecognised significance. He claimed of it that it was the source of all English law, and in particular he claimed that it required that the King rule subject to law, not beyond it. He said that Magna Carta “is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign.”
The Petition of Right was Coke’s way of creating (he would have said “recognising”) the essential features of the English Constitutional framework.
The Petition of Right was adopted by the Parliament but Charles I would not agree to it. Charles I, like John centuries earlier, wanted to continue raising taxes without the inconvenience of Parliament. Like King John, he did it by exacting large sums from his nobles, as he had done in Darnel’s case. Again, the nobles were unhappy. The Civil War started in 1642. Charles lost the war and, in 1649, lost his head. Then came Cromwell, Charles II and James II.
James II was a Catholic and was not popular. His son-in-law, William of Orange, was persuaded to usurp the throne of England. In what became known as the “Glorious Revolution”, on 5 November 1688, William landed at Brixham. That year, 5 November turned out worse for James II than it had in 1605 for James I. James was deposed and William and Mary became joint sovereigns in James’s place.
But there was a condition. William had agreed in advance to accept the Petition of Right. So the parliament of 1689 adopted the petition of Right and it became the English Bill of Rights. By this path, Sir Edward Coke’s views on Magna Carta gained an unassailable place in the fabric of English law.
In form, the Bill of Rights declares itself to be “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown”.
It recites and responds to the vices of James II. Its Preamble starts this way:
“… Whereas the late King James the Second, by the assistance of divers evil counsellors, judges and ministers employed by him, did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom …”
and it then declares certain ‘ancient rights and liberties’.
The English Bill of Rights does, in some ways, reflect Magna Carta. So:
Magna Carta (1215) Article 12: No ‘scutage’ or ‘aid’ may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable ‘aid’ may be levied. ‘Aids’ from the city of London are to be treated similarly
Bill of Rights, clause 4: That levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal;
And the ideas underlying Article 20 of Magna Carta and clause 10 of the Bill of Rights are similar:
Magna Carta (1215) Article 20: For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a husbandman the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.
Bill of Rights, clause 10: That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted;
Beyond this other parallels can be found, but it takes the ingenuity of Sir Edward Coke to make them sound persuasive. For example, Article 61 of Magna Carta of 1215 (which was not repeated in the 1225 version adopted by Henry III) provides for a council of 25 barons to hold the King to his promises, and clause 13 of the Bill of Rights requires Parliaments to be held frequently.
But Coke had persuaded a generation of lawyers and historians that the liberties in the Petition of Right, and thus in the Bill of Rights, were recognised in Magna Carta. So the importance of Magna Carta was picked up and sustained by the Bill of Rights.
The US Bill of Rights
We do not think about the English Bill of Rights very much these days. When we hear about “The Bill of Rights” these days, we automatically think of the United States of America. It is not an accident. The American colonies had been established by the English when they settled Jamestown in 1607. By 1773, things were not going well. The Boston Tea Party took place on 16 December 1773. It was the colonists’ protest against having to pay taxes to a distant government in which they had no representation. In 1776 the colonists decided to sever their ties with Britain and on 4 July 1776 they signed the Declaration of Independence.
In 1789 a Constitution was proposed for the newly independent United States of America. It was a bold and unprecedented venture. The idea of a federation of states with local as well as a central government was a novelty back then. The thirteen colonies, anxious about the possible tyranny of a Federal government, put forward 10 amendments to the Constitution. Those amendments are known, in America and across the English-speaking world, as the Bill of Rights. They closely reflected the English Bill of Rights of 1689.
Although it is sometimes thought the US Bill of Rights is a human rights document, it is no such thing. It is no less than a reflection of what is now called the Rule of Law.
The parallels between the English Bill of Rights and the US Bill of Rights are very clear:
English Bill of Rights (1689)
US Bill of Rights (1791)
Preamble: By raising and keeping a standing army within this kingdom in time of peace without consent of Parliament, and quartering soldiers contrary to law
5 – No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
3 – That the commission for erecting the late Court of Commissioners for Ecclesiastical Causes, and all other commissions and courts of like nature, are illegal and pernicious;
3 – No law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
4 – That levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal;
See US constitution Article 1, Section 9 “…No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time….”
7 – That the subjects which are Protestantsmay have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law;
2 – A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
10 – That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted;
10 – Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted
5 – That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal;
3 – No law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Two important provisions of the US Bill of Rights reflect Articles 39 and 40 of the 1215 Magna Carta (Article 29 of the 1225 re-issue).
Magna Carta 1225
Art 29: No free-man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or dispossessed, of his free tenement, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed; nor will we condemn him, nor will we commit him to prison, excepting by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the laws of the land. To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.”
US Bill of Rights
“8 – In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury … and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; … and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
9 – …the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court”
It is no great surprise that the American colonists drew so heavily on the English Bill of rights. Sir Edward Coke’s Petition of Right represents a stand against the Divine Right of Kings: it seeks to place the ultimate law-making power in the people, through their elected representatives, and it sought to ensure that no-one would stand above the law. The American colonists in 1789 were in the process of creating a new and powerful body which would hover above the various States. It looked as though they might be creating a new monarchy. To guard against that, they proposed the first 10 Amendments to the proposed Constitution.
The US Bill of Rights has very little to do with human rights. It is all about constraining the power of the new Federal government.
The principle of legality
Article 29 of the 1225 Version of Magna Carta is sufficient justification for the document’s fame. Its provisions have since been taken to stand for the proposition that punishment can only be imposed by a court, that laws apply to all equally according to its terms, and that all people are entitled to have their legal rights judged and declared by a Court. This is more grandly expressed as the Principle of Legality or the Rule of Law.
In Australia, we did not adopt a Bill of Rights in our Federal Constitution, and our Constitutional fathers did not have the same reasons to be anxious about a Federal government as the American colonists had a century earlier. But the High Court of Australia has found in the structure of our Constitution a Principle of Legality which reflects the spirit of Magna Carta as interpreted by Coke.
The power of government includes the legislative power, the executive power, and the judicial power.
The Australian Constitution is divided into chapters. The first three chapters create the Parliament, the Executive Government and the Courts respectively. The High Court very early on decided that this gives each arm of government exclusive rights within its own domain. So, for example, only the parliament can exercise the legislative power, and only the courts can exercise the judicial power. For present purposes, that means that courts can impose punishment, but the Parliament and the Executive cannot. Parliament can pass a law which says “Doing x is illegal; penalty 5 years’ jail” but only a court can find that a person has done x, and impose the appropriate punishment.
At least according to Coke, this echoes the provision in Article 39 of Magna Carta that “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals…”
It seems odd, and not a little ironic that, in the year of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Australians were confronted with a government which is seriously challenging the Rule of Law.
A Bill introduced into the Federal Parliament in 2015 authorised guards in immigration detention centre to treat detainees, including children, with such force as they think is reasonably necessary. As a retired Court of Appeal judge said to a Parliamentary enquiry, this would, in theory, allow a guard to beat a detainee to death without the risk of any civil or criminal sanction.
The Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill removed financial support for patients with a mental illness if they are charged with an offence which could carry a sentence of 7 years or more. This automatically puts a defendant at a disadvantage when facing a serious charge, and they suffer that disadvantage regardless whether they are innocent or guilty. It looks very much like punishment without trial.
The Abbott government advanced the idea that any Australian who goes to fight with the Islamic State should be stripped of their citizenship by a Minister of the Crown, that is to say, by a member of the Executive government.
Having your citizenship cancelled looks very much like a punishment: but the Abbott government was determined to be able to do it without troubling a Court to see if the relevant facts are proved and the punishment is required by law. And, archaic as it seems, letting the Minister take away a person’s citizenship looks very much like outlawing or exiling the person without the judgment of his equals. Punishment without trial.
This is not a political argument: it is an argument about the rule of law and is as serious and important as it was in 1215.
In the 21st century it is too late to deny that Magna Carta has developed a level of significance which its authors may not have noticed or intended. If we are true to the spirit which Sir Edward Coke found in it; if we are true to the same spirit which informed the Petition of Right and the English Bill of Rights and the American Bill of Rights then we owe it to the past and to the future to resist any attempt by any government to punish or outlaw or exile any person, except by the judgment of his equals.
 An ancient unit of measure. But not a very useful unit of measure in a standardised system, because its value varied from place to place. The English ell = 45 inches; the Scottish ell = 37·2 inches; the Flemish ell = 27 inches.
It is the logic of our times:
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.
(Cecil Day-Lewis Where are the War Poets, 1943)
Most people understand intuitively the importance of language. We all use it every day in order to function in society. Society without language is inconceivable. But as the torrent of words increases, we come to know that words can be used to trap us or to free us; to help us or hurt us.
In most circumstances, language is intended to convey meaning. Ideally, it should do so accurately. Some writers and speakers betray this ideal, and use language as a stalking horse for quite different ideas they wish to disguise or dare not acknowledge.
Depending on circumstances, this technique may be called tact, diplomacy, euphemism, doublespeak or lying. The proper description depends on the speaker’s purpose.
Tact sets out to avoid giving offence. It suppresses or disguises an unhappy truth to spare the feelings of another. It is falsehood in the service of kindness; a down-payment on future favour. When tact is lifted from the personal to the national scale, it is called diplomacy.
Euphemism does not directly suppress the truth, but disguises it by substituting gentle words for harsher ones. Its intention is benign, if somewhat fey. Its excesses of delicacy inspired Dr Bowdler to strip Shakespeare of any disturbing content: removing, as he said, its ‘blemishes’. Euphemism is especially needed where body parts and body functions are the subject: a cheap frock for recognised facts.
Tact is kind; diplomacy is useful; euphemism is harmless and sometimes entertaining. By contrast, doublespeak is dishonest and dangerous.
When Cecil Day-Lewis wrote the words above, the world was wracked by Hitler’s war. Hitler had done much to restore the fortunes and spirit of the German nation, a nation which had been nearly destroyed by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
But Hitler had also been engaged in enterprises which the world would eventually deplore; much of what he did was masked in falsehood; and what was seen and known of its worst excesses was covered over, or denied or ignored by allied powers who did not find truth convenient in that desperate time. The allies knew of Hitler’s death camps but did nothing.
In his closing address at Nuremberg, US prosecutor Robert Jackson said:
‘Lying has always been a highly approved Nazi technique. Hitler, in Mein Kampf, advocated mendacity as a policy. Von Ribbentrop admits the use of the “diplomatic lie.” Keitel advised that the facts of rearmament be kept secret so that they could be denied at Geneva. Raeder deceived about rebuilding the German Navy in violation of Versailles. Goering urged Ribbentrop to tell a “legal lie” to the British Foreign Office about the Anschluss, and in so doing only marshaled him the way he was going. Goering gave his word of honour to the Czechs and proceeded to break it. Even Speer proposed to deceive the French into revealing the specially trained among their prisoners.
Nor is the lie direct the only means of falsehood. They all speak with a Nazi double talk with which to deceive the unwary. In the Nazi dictionary of sardonic euphemisms “final solution” of the Jewish problem was a phrase which meant extermination “special treatment” of prisoners of war meant killing; “protective custody” meant concentration camp; “duty labor” meant slave labor; and an order to “take a firm attitude” or “take positive measures” meant to act with unrestrained savagery. Before we accept their word at what seems to be its face, we must always look for hidden meanings. Goering assured us, on his oath, that the Reich Defense Council never met “as such.” When we produced the stenographic minutes of a meeting at which he presided and did most of the talking, he reminded us of the “as such” and explained this was not a meeting of the Council “as such” because other persons were present…’
Twisting the truth was a commonplace in Hitler’s Germany, but politicians in many regimes use the same technique: a fact emphasised by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language (1946) and in Nineteen Eightyfour (1948). Orwell wrote of the misuse of language by politicians:
‘A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.’
It is an astonishing thing that, although Orwell showed the stage tricks used by the main offenders, those tricks continue to work. We sit, most of us, like captivated schoolchildren in a sideshow alley, spellbound as the hucksters of language deceive and dissemble. The contagion of dishonest language has not abated.
When senior politicians speak today, it is essential to listen acutely to appreciate that they are simply staying on message whilst avoiding truth, accuracy or anything remotely approaching an answer to the question they have been asked. Even when they appear to be answering the question, you have to look very closely to see which part of the question they are answering. Remember the skillful evasions of Mr Howard when he was asked a question in Parliament by the Member for Chisholm:
ANNA BURKE, MEMBER FOR CHISHOLM: Prime Minister, was the Government contacted by the major Australian producer of ethanol or by any representative of him or his company or the industry association before its decision to impose fuel excise on ethanol?
JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Speaking for myself, I didn’t personally have any discussions, from recollection, with any of them.
A document obtained by the Opposition under freedom of information laws records a meeting between John Howard and Dick Honan about ethanol, just six weeks before the decision. But Mr Howard says he spoke the truth; that his answer related to a different part of the question and that he has been taken out of context.
This same inclination to use language in order to deceive has infected the public service. At a public meeting in April 2002, I had the opportunity to debate aspects of refugee policy with one Philippa Godwin, then the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. Philippa Godwin is clearly a woman of great intelligence. I asked her a question about a fence which surrounds the Baxter Detention Centre. The fence is described on a plan of Baxter as a ‘courtesy fence’. I suggested that it was in fact an electric fence. ‘No,’ she insisted ‘It is not an electric fence. It is an energized fence.’ A 9,000 volt energized fence.
Doublespeak uses language to smuggle uncomfortable ideas into comfortable minds. The Nazi regime were masters at it. The Howard Government was an enthusiastic apprentice. The Morrison government is devoted to it: after all, Scott Morrison learned at the feet of John Howard.
The victims of protective reaction air strikes, or incontinent ordnance, or active defence, or fraternal internationalist assistance, often flee for safety. A small number of them arrive in Australia asking for help. They commit no offence under Australian or international law by arriving here, without invitation and without papers, in order to seek protection. Nonetheless the Australian Government referred to them then, and still refers to them, as ‘illegals’.
Like all doublespeak, ‘illegals’ is used for a purpose: these people are immediately locked up without trial. No doubt it seems less offensive to lock up ‘illegals’ than to lock up innocent, traumatised human beings. When Scott Morrison became Immigration Minister in the government of Tony Abbott, he tried to rename that group “illegal maritime arrivals”. (The Migration Act refers to them, more accurately, as “irregular maritime arrivals”).
They are also disparaged as ‘queue jumpers’: a neat device which falsely suggests two things. First that there is a queue, and second that it is in some way appropriate to stand in line when your life is at risk.
In July 2013, the law was changed so that all “irregular maritime arrivals” had to be sent offshore (to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, if they were unaccompanied males, or to Nauru if they were women, children or family groups).
Until the law changed in 2013, when the ‘illegals/queue jumpers’ arrived in Australia, they were ‘detained’ in ‘Immigration Reception and Processing Centres’. This description is false in every detail. They were locked up without trial, for an indefinite period – typically months or years – in desert camps which are as remote from civilisation as it is possible to be. They were held behind razor wire and slowly sank into hopelessness and despair.
Mr Howard’s congenital dishonesty deceived a nation into accepting these obscenities, while he massaged our conscience with soft words for hard things.
At its foundations, democracy depends on a degree of honesty in politicians. The essence of democracy is that the elected representatives are chosen because their constituents think this candidate or that will best represent their views in parliament. If a candidate lies about his or her beliefs and values, the democratic process is compromised. The greater the lie, the greater the damage to the true course of democracy.
Equally important, the conduct of politicians sets an example for all of us. Children learn by watching our leaders: Mr Howard won the 2001 election by lying: he said, falsely, that some refugees had thrown their children overboard. Refugees were the hot issue in November 2001. Mr Howard showed that it is OK to lie as long as you win. The effects of this, and his many other excursions in dishonesty, will take a long time to eradicate.
Family values was one of the great catch cries of the Howard Government. They came to office in 1996 under the banner of ‘Family Values’. On 8 July 2004, in a major speech in Adelaide, Mr. Howard declared that he stood for a ‘fair and decent society’. These are noble sentiments, but were they to be taken at full value or were they to be interpreted by some special code which we can only discover by looking at what Mr Howard did?
Just a month after the Adelaide speech, the Howard government won an important refugee case in the High Court. Mr al Kateb arrived in Australia in mid-December 2000. He was born in Kuwait. His request for asylum was refused. He found conditions in Woomera so intolerable that he asked to be removed from Australia. Eighteen months later he was still here because, being a stateless Palestinian, there was no country where he was entitled to be, and no country was willing to receive him.
The Migration Act provides that a person who comes to Australia without a visa must be detained, and they must remain in detention until either they get a visa or they are removed from the country. When the Keating government introduced those measures in 1992, one supposes that Parliament suspected that either of those two outcomes would be available in every instance.
They had not allowed for the anomalous case of stateless people. You might think that a government which has paraded itself virtuously as committed to a fair and decent society, with family values and so on, might quickly amend the law to account for these few anomalous cases. But what the government did, in fact, was to argue at every level of the court system that Mr al Kateb, although he had committed no offence in Australia, could be held in detention for the rest of his life. The government won in the High Court, on 6 August 2004.
The thought of an innocent person being jailed for the rest of his life is so shocking that it is impossible to resist the impulse to try and do something about it. Anyone, even the most hardened, must find it a dreadful thing to imagine the circumstances of a person being held in detention forever when they have not committed any offence. It should be a matter of real concern that a government ostensibly committed to a ‘fair and decent society’ is willing to argue for the right to jail the innocent for life.
Likewise, the treatment of the Bakhtiyari family is impossible to reconcile with Mr Howard’s asserted adherence to Christian values and family values.
The family’s claim for asylum foundered, apparently because the government thought they came from Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Like many asylum seekers, they were jailed in Woomera.
Locking up innocent people for years has certain fairly obvious and predictable consequences, especially if the prisoners are children. Depending on their age, resilience and personality, children will retreat into depression and incontinence, or they will take charge by harming themselves or attempting suicide. Either way, the effect on children of prolonged detention is devastating.
The Bakhtiyari case gained a certain notoriety, because the two boys escaped from Woomera, having tried to kill themselves at the tender ages of twelve and fourteen. Regardless of doubt about which country they had fled, one thing was clear: we damaged these children. They were not to blame. The harm they suffered was the obvious and predictable consequence of the treatment we inflicted.
It continued just before Christmas, when their house in Adelaide was raided and they were taken to Port Augusta in preparation for removal from Australia. The baby had a dirty nappy: the mother was not allowed to change it; the younger girl wet her pants in fright; but she was not allowed to change before the five hour drive. Alamdar – his face made familiar to us on TV as he screamed in terror through the steel bars at Woomera – Alamdar was afraid to sleep at night in case of another sudden, wrenching raid. And all the children were haunted by terrors childhood should never know.
The Australian government is responsible for damaging these children. It had a choice at Christmas 2004: to enforce the policy rigidly, or to show kindness to a few damaged children and their parents.
Their response was an interesting test of their pretended Christian values.
The government’s policy of punitive deterrence succeeded in shutting off almost completely the trickle of unauthorised arrivals to Australia. The drowning of 353 people on SIEV X effectively ended the people smugglers’ trade. It is difficult to imagine that sparing the Bakhtiyari family would have triggered a spate of new arrivals, eager to spend years behind razor wire. From there on the cruelty was truly pointless.
On the other hand, showing compassion to the Bakhtiyari family would have been consistent with family values, Christian charity, fairness and decency – the values Mr Howard claimed to hold. His government chose to remove the family, despite increasing public concern.
The removal of the Bakhtiyari family reflected on the character of this country’s leadership. Mr Howard, Mr Ruddock and Mrs Vanstone were personally responsible for the shocking damage suffered by those children. Those politicians held themselves out as Christians; they embraced ‘family values’. But at Christmas time in 2004 they denied kindness or compassion to six children whose lives they had blighted.
Scott Morrison’s mistreatment of the Tamil family previously living in Biloela (Queensland) is another example of the same mentality. The family comprised: mother, father and Australian-born daughters (aged 4 and 3 at the time). In 2018, the PM re-opened the detention centre in Christmas Island just for that family. To make it clear that he intended to return them to Sri Lanka, he held a vastly expensive press conference on Christmas Island.
Unfortunately, the government – then and now – seems concerned that mercy and compassion set a bad precedent. Given that the government had a discretion to allow the family to stay, it is difficult to understand why it insisted on removing a family it had damaged so badly, unless its purpose was to send a message: not to people smugglers, but to us. Its message to us is this: We hold absolute power; we do not have to acknowledge public sentiment; we can crush anyone who messes with us.
This is why honesty matters. Imagine the reaction at the polls if John Howard had told the truth. Imagine if, in 2001, he had said:
‘I know the asylum seekers did not throw their children overboard – they were just doing what any decent parent would do – they were trying to save them from the Taliban, or Saddam Hussein.’
Imagine if he had said at the 2004 election:
‘My government locks up innocent people. We treat them cruelly, because we don’t want to encourage their type. We have power to gaol innocent people for life. I will not help the Bakhtiyari children at Christmas time because I don’t have to. I will only show compassion for popular victims.’
Imagine also how different things might be if the press in this country had shown some spine over the past few years. Many – perhaps most – journalists in Australia today shy away from unpopular truths. The case of Cornelia Rau provided an interesting example. Cornelia Rau was held in immigration detention for nearly a year – initially in a Queensland prison, then in Baxter. She was obviously mentally disturbed. The officials at Baxter deemed her to be mentally sound, but showing ‘behavioural difficulties’. She was held in isolation for most of her time in Baxter. As long as she was Anna, ‘an illegal’ no one outside the refugee network was interested, despite Pamela Curr’s valiant attempts to bring her story to light. Once it was revealed that she was an Australian citizen, the press was in uproar. The story ran for weeks.
In the wake of the Cornelia Rau story, other stories of systemic cruelty in Baxter emerged. For example, Francis Milne, one of the centre’s volunteers from the Uniting Church told the story of Hassan, a 37-year-old Algerian man. He spent nine weeks in solitary confinement in Baxter because he had threatened to commit suicide. He was subjected to a cavity search in front of two females.
And there is the case of Amin, who was in Baxter with his seven year old daughter.
On 14 July 2003, three ACM guards entered Amin’s room and ordered him to strip. He refused, because his seven-year old daughter was in the room. When he refused to strip, the guards beat him up, handcuffed him, and took him to the ‘Management Unit’.
The Management Unit is a series of solitary confinement cells.
I have viewed a video tape of one of the Management Unit cells. It shows a cell about 3½ metres square, with a mattress on the floor. There is no other furniture; the walls are bare. A doorway, with no door, leads into a tiny bathroom. The cell has no view outside; it is never dark. The occupant has nothing to read, no writing materials, no TV or radio; no company yet no privacy because a video camera observes and records everything, 24 hours a day. The detainee is kept in the cell 23 ½ hours a day. For half an hour a day he is allowed into a small exercise area where he can see the sky.
There he stayed from 14 July until 23 July: each 24 hours relieved only by a half-hour visit from his daughter. But on 23 July she did not come. It was explained to him that she had been taken shopping in Port Augusta.
The next day, 24 July, she did not arrive for her visit: the manager came and explained that the daughter was back in Tehran. She had been removed from Australia under cover of a lie, without giving Amin the chance to say goodbye to her.
Anyone who has visited Baxter knows stories like these. But these stories disappear without a trace because the press, with some honourable exceptions, are only interested in the sufferings of an Australian resident.
In presenting an unbalanced view of Australia’s conduct, by not exposing the dishonesty of the Howard and Morrison governments, the press engages in its own form of dishonesty. They help maintain the comfortable illusion of our own worthiness, and we are blind to a society turning sour. When the process is complete, when we have been stripped of our liberties for our own protection, when the values which once held this nation high have been terminally debased, then we will realise that honesty matters.
Given that this is the Michael Kirby Oration, allow me a couple of minutes to talk about Michael Kirby.
Many years ago, Kirby telephoned me at home at about 8.00 on a Sunday morning. I was awake, but my day had not started. His opening words surprised me: “I rang you in chambers, but you were not there.” His tone of gentle reproach suggested that I needed to improve my work habits.
At the time, I was an ambitious young junior barrister, but the idea of being in chambers early on a Sunday morning had not occurred to me. I had only met him once or twice. It was the very early days of the law’s encounter with computer technology. I had shared the platform with Kirby a couple of times at seminars to do with computers and their likely impact on law and legal practice. I thought I knew a thing or two about the subject. His knowledge and insight made a great impression.
If Kirby’s purpose in calling me on a Sunday morning early was to impress me with his industry, it worked. If I had been tempted to think that he was showing off, the balance of his history would prove me wrong: Kirby’s industry is legendary; his output is phenomenal.
There are too many aspects of his productive life to compress into these brief remarks, but one of the enduring themes is founded in a profound ethical choice. Kirby’s thinking is guided by an unshakeable conviction that human dignity and human rights are the gravitational centre of any civilized society; and that a legal system which escapes the insistent pull of human rights will produce law without justice. Kirby writes for a future which honours that role of law in society.
It seems curious that this might be a matter of ethical choice, since it seems to me so obviously right. But Kirby’s view of the proper role of law is not shared by everyone: for some whose human rights are not in doubt, law serves better if it gets on with other tasks.
In much of his writing, on and off the Bench, he stands above the crowd and sees further. If he is looking to the future, it is because he sees clearly how the future can be. While contemporary commentators have not been uniform in their appreciation of Michael Kirby’s views, I think posterity will be more generous.
His appeal to future ages will come, in large measure, from the central idea that human dignity and human rights are fundamental. His place in history will depend in part on whether or not we acknowledge the centrality of human rights in our system of law. That idea provokes hostility in some quarters and indifference in others. It is by no means certain that we will end up with a legal system based on the notion that law should produce a just result consistent with the principles of human rights.
If Michael Kirby writes for the future, it is a future I would wish to share. It may be difficult to attain. But he has shown us the way, and he has shown that it is worth striving for.
His decision to live as a gay man without the respectable cover of a heterosexual marriage was an ethical choice; his decision to “come out” was another.
With one possible exception, I have not had to make such profound existential choices. And I come to the subject of ethics as a layperson, an amateur. Apart from the narrow field of professional ethics, lawyers are not instructed in ethics. Professional ethics, for lawyers, deals with such prosaic ideas as not stealing a client’s money, and not being rude to judges. It does not take a post-graduate degree in philosophy to discover the rules of professional ethics.
The exception was the choice to take on the Howard government in 2001 over the Tampa episode, and then over the issue of the treatment of asylum seekers generally. For a person who had never been politically engaged, it was a strange choice, but an easy one. It was made easier by the fact that my naïveté prevented me from foreseeing the personal cost of doing what I did. But even if I had been smart enough to predict the death threats, the hate mail and the vilification by government acolytes in the maggot end of the press, I would have made the same choice.
If I had thought it through, it was a collision of principle (which said it is essential to do something) and pragmatism (which said “this is a bad career move”). But I made the choice by instinct, not by ethics.
It is a pity that lawyers don’t receive any real training in ethics, because one way or another lawyers, like doctors, are involved in ethical problems which are part of the fabric of any society and which emerge unexpectedly in a society in which technology is evolving rapidly.
Medicine continues to throw up ethical choices of the most fundamental kind. The conference programme shows how diverse they are. What constitutes a living human being? When is a person dead? When is a person entitled to die? What are the relevant limiting criteria shaping end of life decisions: sentience, physical capability, independence, resource allocation? Does the right of a patient to have an abortion impose a corresponding obligation on a doctor to perform one?
Lawyers have a limited role in making ethical decisions of that sort – we are generally consulted by one or other side of the contest. But they do not ask “What is the right answer?”. They tell you their version of the right answer, and ask you to persuade a court (or perhaps a parliament) to embrace that answer.
For barristers at least, this position is in part a result of the cab-rank principle. Every barrister has had the experience of being asked, at a dinner party “How can you defend someone who you know is guilty?”. The answer is “The cab-rank principle”.
The cab-rank principle says that if you are offered a brief in a field of your ordinary practice, marked with a fee appropriate to your experience, and for a time when you are available, then you must accept the brief. It matters not that you despise the client, or the client’s cause or the client’s conduct. Those matters are subordinated to the idea that everyone is entitled to competent representation. It’s an important principle, because without it some people would have real difficulty finding anyone willing to represent them. The fact that people still ask the question highlights the problem: some lay people – perhaps many of them – think that a guilty person should not be able to have legal representation. Apart from anything else, this view conveniently forgets that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that the lawyer’s role is to represent the client, not to judge his guilt or innocence.
I should hasten to add that this principle does not apply to pro bono work. Self-evidently, pro bono work is unpaid, so pro bono work does not meet the criterion that the brief is marked with an appropriate fee. In performing pro bono work, barristers not only discharge the useful function of supplementing the inadequacy of Legal Aid, but in addition they give voice to their own ethical choices.
The presumption of innocence, and the requirement that all people who go to court are entitled to competent representation illustrates the way various ethical choices have been played out in our society. The choice that all people are entitled to justice, not only the powerful. The choice that an accused person should be presumed innocent – the same presumption does not operate in Japan. The choice that, in the contest between state and citizen, the parties should meet on equal terms, with each competently represented.
The most fundamental of these choices is the first – that our conception of justice includes the idea that all people are entitled to it. This is neither universal nor self-evident. In his history of the Peloponnesian wars, Thucydides retells the Melian dialogue. In its war against Sparta, Athens decided to invade the island of Melos. Although Melos had not harmed Athens, and was neutral in the war, it was strategically located. Athens wanted Melos fore its strategic importance. An Athenian delegation went to the Commissioners of Melos and came straight to the point. They agreed that it would seem unjust for them to invade Melos, but noted that “Justice is only relevant between equals in power. Where power is not equal, the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.”
Feudal societies and dictatorships tend to share the Athenian view. Neither the Taliban nor those who hold Taliban in Guantanamo Bay think that justice is for all.
An equally deep ethical choice is involved in deciding what constitutes justice. The answer to this question helps shape innumerable aspects of the legal system. Try this. A mother, stressed already by school holiday torment, is in the kitchen when she hears a crash in the living-room. She rushes to see what has happened and finds her favourite, most precious vase shattered on the hearth. She knows with a certainty which transcends analysis that her youngest was responsible. She fines him and sends him to bed without dinner. As it happens, he was in fact responsible for breaking the vase.
The alternative version: when the mother finds the vase, she realizes that no-one should be punished without good cause and due process. This is the minimum requirement of justice. She seeks out each child in turn and asks questions calculated to discover the truth of the matter. Suspicion eventually falls on her youngest. She gives him a chance to explain. Not convinced by his explanation she sends him to bed without dinner. As it happens, he was not responsible for breaking the vase.
The question is: Which of these two results is more just? The first is pragmatic; the second accords with principle. But most people cannot choose which is right without hesitation. Due process is inherent in our conception of justice. But bad process can yield right results, just as good process can produce wrong results. The legal system, with all its concerns about process and procedure, is designed to produce justice. The idea of a mob-lynching of a suspected criminal is abhorrent, even if it happens that the mob is right in their choice of victim.
This simple example illustrates how hard it is to choose what constitutes justice. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that our ethical criteria are not static. What appears just in one age may be repugnant in another. A crude illustration of this process is found in social attitudes to capital punishment.
Ronald Ryan was the last person put to death by an Australian Government. The fight to save him from the gallows in 1967 was hotly contested. Led by Barry Jones, those campaigning against capital punishment were vilified by the government of the day and by the tabloid press. Now, 43 years on, no government in Australia today argues for reintroduction of capital punishment, and members of the community who support capital punishment are either a small minority or surprisingly quiet.
Nevertheless, there was a strong body of opinion in Australia which supported the idea of executing the Bali bombers, and even more local opposition to the execution of the Bali 9. One integer of the ethical choice, it seems, is the nationality of the prisoner being sentenced.
One hundred years ago there was near universal support for the death penalty as an appropriate feature of the justice system.
Two hundred years ago, capital punishment was a commonplace, as was public flogging. What was just then seems to us barbaric now.
Another example can be found in the recent history of South Australia. Until the early 1960s, the South Australian Government had a practice of removing aboriginal children from their parents.
There have been three attempts by members of the stolen generations to recover damages. Actions in the Northern Territory and New South Wales failed. Recently, in August 2007, an action brought in South Australia succeeded.
In the South Australian case, the Plaintiff was Bruce Trevorrow. Bruce was the illegitimate son of Joe Trevorrow and Thora Lampard. 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 those times it was not lawful for an aborigine to live closer than one mile to a place of white settlement.
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.
The family lived in suburban Adelaide. They had a daughter who was aged 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.
A short time later, Bruce’s mother wrote to the Department asking how he was doing and when he was coming home. The Department replied that Bruce was doing quite well but that he was not yet well enough to come home. Bruce had been given away weeks earlier.
For the next 8 years, they prevented Bruce’s mother from finding out where he was.
When Bruce was three years old he was taken to hospital again: 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.
Every time he has been assessed by a psychiatrist, from the age of 9 to the age of 49, the diagnosis has been the same: anxiety, profound depression, no sense of identity and no sense of belonging anywhere.
Bruce’s brothers came to give evidence at the trial. A striking feature of the trial was the astonishing difference between Bruce and his brothers, Tom and George, 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. By contrast, Bruce was profoundly damaged, depressed and broken.
In its defence, the Government of South Australia argued that removing a child from his or her parents did no harm. This contest led to one of the most significant findings in the case. Justice Gray said in his judgment:
“ 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 based on extensive evidence concerning the work of John Bowlby in the early 1950s, and it also accords with commonsense. We all have an instinct that taking children from their parents will cause great pain.
It is fair to assume that most of the people involved in this conduct considered that they were acting justly, for was it not self-evident that an aboriginal child would be better off growing up in white, middle-class suburbia than in the shabbiness of an aboriginal settlement, even if the shabbiness was itself the result of aboriginals being alienated from white society?
Now we see it differently. In its first sitting, the Rudd government said “sorry”” to the stolen generations. It seemed almost too good to be true: it was the apology so many had waited so long to hear. And when we heard it, we rejoiced at the sound of some of the noblest and most dignified sentiments ever uttered in that place on the hill. It is worth recalling some of Kevin Rudd’s 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.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologize 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 …”
The day Kevin Rudd said sorry to the stolen generations was 13 February 2008. It will be remembered as a day when the spirit of the nation stirred.
The apology raised a couple of new ethical problems. The first is this. The Prime Minister acknowledged that the removal of children from their parents caused great harm, both to the parents and to the children. He acknowledged that it was a great wrong. The judgment in Bruce Trevorrow’s case shows that the harm was predictable, and was foreseen – or at least foreseeable – by the government at the time. Is there not an ethical obligation to go further than saying “sorry”? Where a moral wrong has caused foreseeable harm, surely saying sorry is not enough – it is ethically necessary to help remedy the harm done.
The second is this. Many Australians – about 80% it seems – approved strongly of the apology. Many people obviously felt that something profoundly important had happened. Many, I am sure, felt better in themselves for the fact that we had, as a nation, apologized to the stolen generations.
But is it ethically right for us to feel cleansed and relieved by the apology, and do nothing to persuade the government that an apology is not enough, and that compensation is needed? It is clear enough that saying sorry is useful and to a degree palliative. But it is clear also that the harm which the Prime Minister acknowledged will not be remedied by an apology alone. Even compensation will not mend the wounds entirely, but compensation will go further toward that end than an apology alone.
The next ethical choice we need to make, as a society is for a national compensation scheme, run by the States, Territories and 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 describes 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 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-$100,000 depending on circumstances.
The process should be simple, co-operative, lawyer-free and 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. Unfortunately, as a community we seem to have made an ethical choice which says that saying sorry is enough.
It is interesting to contrast the current attitude to removal of aboriginal children with attitudes at the time it happened. Then it was (at least to many) an ethical practice. Now it is not. If, in 2010, officers of a government department regularly decided to remove children from parents who lived in impoverished suburbs and placing them with white parents in more wealthy suburbs, in order to give them a better chance in life, the community will be rightly horrified. Few people would say that it makes any difference if the children being removed are white, black, Asian, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
This raises troubling questions about later assessment of current orthodoxies. In 2003 I was briefed by the Office of the Public Advocate in Victoria to act in an end of life case. The patient, known as Mrs BWV, was a middle-aged woman who had been in a persistent vegetative state for three years. She was kept alive by being fed via a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy. The Medical Treatment Act provided that a person’s guardian may, on behalf of the patient, refuse medical treatment. However the Act went onto say that it did not apply to palliative care. Palliative care was defined as including the reasonable provision of food and water.
The Public Advocate was acting as BWV’s guardian. He sought a court declaration that feeding via a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy was “medical treatment” for the purposes of the Medical Treatment Act. He made it clear that, if feeding via PEG was properly regarded as medical treatment in the circumstances, he intended to withdraw consent. The inevitable result of that would be that Mrs BWV would die over the course of a week or so.
Mrs BWV’s family supported this course, saying that their mother had often expressed horror at the idea of being kept alive artificially if she were in a permanent coma.
It struck me then, and now, as ethically right that a person should be allowed to choose to die, and to dictate in advance their choice if circumstances render them unable to express a choice at the relevant time (incidentally, it struck me then as it strikes me now that if a decision to die is legitimate then requiring slow death by starvation is barbaric, when death by injection would be nearly instantaneous).
That said, it is not difficult to see that in 20 or 50 or 100 years from now social mores may have changed such that allowing a person to die in these circumstances would be regarded as unethical, immoral or criminal. Sir Francis Galton’s theory of eugenics had many adherents for decades, until the Nazis gave it a bad name. There is already a strong and vocal movement which opposes the idea of allowing a person in the position of Mrs BWV to die. There is no certainty at all that the ethical choices we make now will be viewed benevolently by later generations.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I see Australia’s treatment of refugees as one of ethical choice. It goes to the heart of whether we are a just society, and for any lawyer, justice is – or should be – a central concern. It is pre-eminently an area where principle, pragmatism and politics collide. In recent months, the debate about boat-people has reignited.
Recent comments by Tony Abbott suggest that, if elected, he would take a much harder line on what he calls ‘border protection’; he would reintroduce the Temporary Protection Visa; he would reintroduce the Pacific Solution; he would reintroduce the extraordinary idea that asylum seekers, held indefinitely despite having committed no offence, should be liable to the government for the daily cost of their incarceration. These things were bad under Howard and Ruddock. What is alarming is that Abbott immediately gained ground in the polls.
Clearly, he had taken his cue from polling in the marginal electorates and saw that pushing back Muslim refugees would be popular. He lied by suggesting that we were being flooded by boat people, whereas in fact the arrival rate is still tiny by any measure. He condemned all people smugglers to moral depths, as if all were in the same moral basket.
The people of this country, by and large, approved of his idea of mistreating the innocent to deter others from seeking our help.
Kevin Rudd’s principles should have rejected Abbott’s approach, but he quickly followed suit, and started talking tough about boat-people – he had figured out that decent treatment of refugees would work against him in the electorate. Of course his harshest comments were directed against people smugglers, because a frontal attack on refugees might have looked a bit too harsh.
But surely the parable of the good Samaritan demands a humane response to people who, without committing any offence come here and politely ask us to protect them. And let us not forget that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a people smuggler. And so was Oskar Schindler, and so was Captain Schroeder, the master of the MS St Louis who tried valiantly to find a safe country for 900 Jewish refugees in 1939, but was eventually forced to return them to Europe where more than half of them perished in concentration camps.
Bonhoeffer, Schindler and Schroeder were people smugglers who made dangerous choices for principle against politics and pragmatism. We honour their memory. For political leaders in this country, especially self-proclaimed Christians, to prefer politics over principle is as disappointing as it is familiar.
This morning’s newspapers tell us that Julia Gillard is about to turn her attention to boat-people. It would be an easy thing for her to take the initiative and respond in a principled way. She could demonstrate just how flagrantly Abbott has tried to mislead the public on this issue. She could point out that, even at the current rate of arrival, it would take 20 years to fill the MCG with boat-people. She could point out that about 90% of boat-people are ultimately assessed as genuine refugees who are legally entitled to our protection. She could point out that, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is so great that our troops are scarcely gaining ground, and that most boat-people in recent times are Afghans fleeing the Taliban. She could point out that, if we are concerned about a sustainable population, for every boat person who comes to Australia each year, we accept 20 new permanent economic migrants who come here as a matter of free choice.
Faced with these facts, the public might think that the case for human decency is overwhelming. But I fear that pragmatism of the crudest sort will govern the outcome.
Genuine protection of human rights is a necessary feature of a Just Society. Any worthwhile human rights framework will guarantee as inalienable rights those conditions which are generally regarded as necessary for a decent human existence. A survey of the guaranteed rights in other Western democracies shows that they all guarantee the following rights and freedoms:
Right to life and liberty
Freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly,
Freedom from arbitrary search and seizure
Due process and equal protection under law
No cruel and unusual punishment
Privileges and immunities, due process, ,
Right to vote
The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit has explored the question whether a just society will also necessarily be a decent society. He tests the question by asking whether a society which is just may also choose to tolerate ‘humiliating institutions’.
What does Margalit’s proposition mean? He asks us to imagine a village in which food aid is to be distributed. Each villager needs one kilogram of rice. A just distribution may be achieved by visiting each house in the village and handing out the appropriate number of rice parcels. An alternative means is to drive through the village and tip the rice parcels off the back of the truck, with police on hand to ensure that no-one tries to take more than one package. Both methods result in an equal distribution, and thus satisfy John Rawls’ famous test for a just society. But the second method is humiliating. As Margalit says –
“The distribution may be both efficient and just, yet still humiliating… The claim that there can be bad manners in a Just Society may seem petty – confusing the major issue of ethics with the minor one of etiquette. But it is not petty. It reflects an old fear that justice may lack compassion and might even be an expression of vindictiveness. There is a suspicion that the Just Society might become mired in rigid calculations of what is just, which may replace gentleness and humane consideration in simple human relations. The requirement that a Just Society should also be a decent one means that it is not enough for goods to be distributed justly and efficiently – the style of their distribution must also be taken into account”
Margalit develops this, arguing that, of all the goods which must be equally distributed, the most fundamental is self-respect. Self-respect precedes other basic goods – freedom of thought, speech and movement; food and shelter; education and employment – because self-respect is necessary if a person’s existence is to have any meaning at all. Without the possibility of self-respect, a person’s life can have no purpose, and pursuit of life’s other goals is a meaningless exercise. By this path, we see the undeniable centrality of human dignity in any coherent social framework, just as Kirby has consistently argued.
For some time, without knowing it, Australia has been wrestling with this great ethical choice: do we want to be a decent society? Do we actually believe in human rights, or do we simply pay lip service to the idea? There are worrying signs that we have resolved the question the wrong way.
Broadly speaking, Australians have a fairly respectful attitude to human rights. If most Australians were asked what they thought of human rights they would say that human rights matter. The question then arises: How is it that those same people watched with unconcern as David Hicks languished for years in Guantanamo Bay without charge and without trial? How is it that they watched with unconcern for years as innocent men, women and children were locked up indefinitely in desert jails merely because they were fleeing the Taliban or Saddam Hussein? How is it that we have managed such enduring complacency to the plight of the aborigines whose land was taken and whose children were stolen? How is it that we are so indifferent to the draconian effects of the anti-terror laws as they are applied to Muslims in the Australian community, when we would not tolerate similar intrusions on our own rights?
We have seen recently an unhappy reflection of this ambivalence about human rights. After an exhaustive consultation process, The Brennan committee recommended that Australia enact a Human Rights Act, of the sort we have in Victoria and the ACT. The Brennan committee received more submissions than any government enquiry in Australia’s history. The submissions were overwhelmingly in favour of a Human Rights Act. But in April, the Rudd government announced that the government would not put forward a bill for a Human Rights Act. It was a triumph of practical politics over principle. Not only is Australia the only western democracy not to have a Human Rights Act, we are probably the only country in the world to have actively chosen not to have one. How is it that, as a fairly benign democracy, we have ended up in this position?
The answer I think is this: Australians subconsciously divide human beings into two categories: Us and Other. We think, perhaps subconsciously, “My rights matter, and so do those of my family and friends and neighbours, but the human rights of others do not matter in quite the same way because, (without quite saying it) the Others are not human in quite the same way we are”. It is dangerous thinking and profoundly wrong.
We have human rights not because we are nice or because we are white or because we are Christian but because we are human. This is something the Australian public do not generally understand. So they are easily spooked by the utterly misguided and misleading comments of people like Cardinal Pell and Bob Carr; their anxiety is reflected in polling in marginal electorates, and politics trump principle.
Of all the things that might be said about Australia in the 21st century, the most depressing is this: political leaders of both major parties are driven almost completely by pragmatism, and not by principle. Malcolm Turnbull tried to cling to principle in relation to global warming, and he was dumped by his party. Neither Rudd nor Abbott have allowed their Christian values get in the way of focus group results. It is too early to say whether Julia Gillard will be any better.
The ethical choice implicit in these matters reflects badly on the country. I began by lamenting that lawyers do not study ethics at university. Perhaps the real problem is that Australians are not taught ethics at school: they learn ethics by observation, by watching what sports people do, by watching what politicians do. Heaven help us.
This is a very good piece written by Australian author Mike Richards: It deals with him by the letters of his name, which is NOT to say he is a man of letters.
Donald J Trump, by Mike Richards
The essence of Donald Trump’s political personality is actually beyond narcissism: he has what I would call an “emperor complex” — a belief that, like medieval European royalty, he is a supreme being, superior to all others, all-powerful, above the law in ruling his empire, and able to do and say anything which must be taken as valid and true.
As Emperor of All America, Trump believes he possesses the divine right of kings: he is not accountable to earthly authority (i.e. Congress) or even subject to the will of the people, whose duty is only to admire and loyally praise his tremendous power and magnificent achievements. And under the doctrine of the infallibility of kings, Trump is unimpeachable and always right. At times he seems to extend to his children this assumption of an entitlement to rule as part of an imperial royal family.
In spelling this out, let’s start with Trump’s use of his signature in an enduring ritual of his presidency: issuing fiats by signing into law legislative and executive orders and displaying the signed document for lawmakers and the assembled media in the Oval Office as a validation moment of presidential achievement.
No president has been more triumphant in holding up the signed formal record of his executive accomplishments. As he signs the page with his custom-made black Sharpie pen, he etches the big, thick lines that make up his signature, which is at once angular and condensed, yet takes up more than half a page-width of what he sees as imperial edicts. Bold and huge, his signature is clearly intended to signal his commanding authority.
Using psychoanalytic insights, how might we decipher the signature letters of “Donald J Trump” to speculate on the traits that shape and define his emperor complex?
(Image: AP/Andrew Harnik)
The “D” in Donald J Trump has a number of possibilities. Despotic, defensive, deaf, devious, damaged, disloyal, disordered and dysfunctional all come to mind — as does dangerous (Mary Trump’s descriptor), which refers to all manner of damage he has done to the American system of democracy through his imperious disdain for truth in public office. He is also divisive, as in his response to the Black Lives Matter protests, associating himself with a tweet labelling peaceful protesters near the White House as “terrorists”.
But the behavioural trait he most compellingly displays is “delusional”. For Emperor Trump, the concepts of evidence and truth do not matter, and the most powerful man in the world can say anything he likes and not be accountable.
Trump has exhibited delusional behaviour many times during his term in office, starting with his description of the crowd at his 2017 inauguration as the biggest inauguration crowd ever– a description the White House sought to bolster through manipulated photographic images.
This was Trump’s coronation moment, the occasion of his enthronement, and he cannot bear to have his consecration diminished by comparisons with his rivals — those he regards as inferior beings — even if the rivalry exists only in his imagination. For Trump to accept that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had a larger crowd at his inauguration would be internally wounding and demeaning, and he is driven to avoid it with delusions of exaggerated superiority and self-importance.
This early delusional flourish was merely a hint of what was to come. Since then Trump has come to sharpen his obliteration of his perceived enemies — and those who deny his claim to greatness — with his frequent use of the word “fake”. This has become the epithet of choice for Emperor Trump: not merely is someone who opposes him wrong or even despicable, they are illegitimate and can be banished from his mind.
Obama has been a special target for Trump, going back to his assertions during Obama’s first term that America’s first Black president was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii, and hence was not constitutionally eligible to serve in the White House — merely a “pretender” to the throne. His delusions about Obama were not merely a political claim that his predecessor was misguided or ineffectual, or took the country in the wrong direction, but that he occupied his office illegitimately.
This is the ultimate put down by Trump — not merely the political disparagement of an imagined rival but the denial and destruction of his legitimacy. With no credible evidence whatsoever for his “birther” claim, Trump destroyed in his own mind the authority of the man who stood in the place he coveted.
It wasn’t enough, however, and Trump’s obsession with Obama has continued, perhaps intensified by Obama’s mocking of Trump at the White House correspondents dinner in April 2011. Humiliated by the audience laughing at him, Trump has never let go, tweeting in May this year that Obama was responsible for “the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR … [a crime that] makes Watergate look small time”.
However, at a subsequent press conference when pressed by journalists to explain this baseless claim, Trump replied: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers…” (He continued his “denial of legitimacy” ploy with comments in August about the Democratic candidate for vice-president, Kamala Harris, who he falsely claimed was “ineligible to serve” if she was elected in November because she was born in the US to immigrant parents.)
Delusions of imperial grandeur are also a feature of Trump’s personality. He boasts that everything he does is amazing — the biggest, the best, the grandest and most beautiful. This became apparent in 1982 with the completion in New York of the extraordinary Trump Tower, the family apartments which are decorated in a gaudy mix of the opulent style of the French emperors’ palace of Versailles, the columned temples of ancient Greece and the grand palaces of Russia — a style which has been disparaged as “haute Miami Vice elegance”.
These gilded private rooms, with fixtures in 24-carat gold plate, are an expression of Trump’s inner need to feel regal — even King Midas-like. On its website, the Trump organisation says of the building that it “stands as a world famous testament of Mr Trump’s grand vision and ability to achieve tremendous success with everything he touches”.
The delusional trait is also found in Trump’s Twitter communications, both in his own words or those of others who say what he really thinks and believes. Last year he quoted a conservative radio host who called him “the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best President for Israel in the history of the world … and the Jewish people in Israel love him like he is the King of Israel. Like he is the second coming of God.”
As we know, Emperor Trump tweets the messages of others that reflect his inner beliefs. His delusions are repetitive and obvious and have a common element: he is a tremendous president, and the greatest, the most perfect leader of his subjects.
This is a recurring claim that he makes, as he did in July 2019: “I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” It was apparent again when, in disputing the impeachable character of his so-called quid pro quo phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he described the call as “perfect”.
Consistent with this delusion, when things go well Trump takes the credit; when they go badly, it’s always someone else’s fault. This was clear when he made the grandiose promise of completing the wall between Mexico and the US. When it was not completed, he blamed the political establishment, the news media — everyone but himself.
More recently, in early March this year, Trump minimised the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic for the US — blaming the “fake news” media for spreading panic — as if accepting the enormity of this threat would somehow diminish his standing of Imperial Majesty.
As appropriate as “delusional” is to describe a key Trump trait, it has to be acknowledged that it is accompanied by high-level political acumen. On the flip side of his delusions is an unerring capacity to pick the weaknesses of his political rivals, perhaps through unconscious projection of his inner vulnerabilities. It is as if his delusions about his own inflated capabilities (founded as they are in unconscious defences against a profound inner sense of inferiority) enable him to crystallise the personality flaws of his opponents — to endow them with the personality traits he denies in himself.
(Image: AP/Alex Brandon)
The second letter of Trump’s royal signature — “O” — is also instructive: obscene, outlaw, outlandish, obsessive and oppositional are in the frame, but the signature “O” word that best fits is “omnipotent”, and it’s a particular expression of his delusional and authoritarian behaviour.
Trump always sees himself as the best, the greatest, the smartest — but particularly the most powerful. Even from the outset of his presidential candidacy, he articulated his grandiose sense of himself. Accepting the Republican nomination in July 2016, he declared: “I am your voice. I will be a champion, your champion. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
It has also come out in his periodic declarations of his monarch-like authority: “When somebody is president of the United States, your authority is total.” Trump said this in an angry tirade at a press conference on April 13 in response to criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. His seeming omnipotent authoritarianism is not the expression of a developed philosophy of governing, but a reflection of his self-centred preoccupation with ruling — of being in total control of his empire and its subjects.
The key letter for Donald Trump is “N” for “narcissist”. This is the umbrella letter for his core political personality, and it is no exaggeration to say that all the other behavioural features flow from this. He has a hyper-narcissistic personality, and whatever he does in office is really all about him.
All successful leaders have a healthy degree of self-regard — and a certain measure of associated paranoia; qualities necessary for political action and leadership survival. But when they become excessive and overpowering they can lead to debilitating and dysfunctional ways of acting politically.
More importantly, when these traits include a mix of other antisocial personality traits — what clinicians call “malignant narcissism” — sociopathic behaviour can emerge.
There are several features of Trump’s narcissistic and paranoid personality that shape a consistent pattern in his political behaviour. The central features are a distinctive marketing acumen and political drive that is accompanied by paranoia and destructive tendencies — anger, rage, envy and resentment — which suggests an inner dynamic involving overweening ambition defending against (that is, compensating for) low self-esteem.
The psychoanalytic literature on narcissistic personality is extensive and important to understanding Trump’s political personality, his emperor complex. At the core of modern theories are the concepts of the “narcissistic self”, in particular the “grandiose self” — the unconscious structure holding omnipotent and exhibitionistic wishes regulating behaviour and self-esteem.
The grandiose self, whose central mechanism may be stated as “I am perfect”, is a normal part of the child’s sense of itself. Under optimal conditions the exhibitionism and grandiosity of the child is gradually tamed, gives way to more realistic functioning, and becomes an important element in adult self-esteem. However, if the child’s development is disrupted by narcissistic trauma, whether real or imagined, it may persist unaltered in the adult formation of exaggerated ambition.
It is worth noting here that Trump has described his father Fred as demanding, difficult and driven, Indeed, from multiple biographical accounts of Trump’s early life, including most recently Mary Trump’s book, his father seems even more extreme — a sociopathic, relentlessly dominating, bullying and emotionally inaccessible parent. Trump’s emotional development was seemingly snap-frozen in early childhood when he appeared defensively combative, aggressively competitive and dominating. For the young Donald, losing meant inner obliteration.
In short, it seems the child persona has persisted into his adult behaviour. As he told a recent biographer: “When I look at myself in the first grade and look at myself now, I’m basically the same.”
In his classic study published more than 40 years ago, US psychoanalyst Otto F Kernberg MD identified a number of distinctive characteristics of the narcissistic personality. This type, he wrote, typically presents with “excessive self-absorption hand in hand with … various combinations of intense ambitiousness, grandiose fantasies, feelings of inferiority, and over-dependence on external admiration and acclaim, they suffer from chronic feelings of boredom and emptiness, [and] are constantly searching for gratification of strivings for brilliance [and] power”.
Other predominant characteristics “include a lack of capacity for empathetic understanding of others … conscious or unconscious exploitativeness and ruthlessness toward others and, particularly, the presence of chronic intense envy and defences against such envy”.
Trump’s behavior has been exemplified by many of these problematic features, the first of which is a tendency towards intense envy and resentment of those who, he believes, have entitlements greater than his own.
This is linked, second, to an ambivalent attitude towards elites and people in authority — for example, promising to “drain the swamp” at the same time as aspiring to rule over the swamp. At other times this appears as a tendency to enviously abuse and tear down to his level anyone within his orbit he perceives as occupying a superior position and casting a shadow over his throne.
Third, he shows in his political behaviour an obsessive concern to assert that he — above all others — is in control. And fourth, he shows a tendency towards paranoid fantasies, a hyper-sensitivity to criticism, where he sees friend and foe alike as attacking or undermining him.
Trump’s inner sense is that he is never wrong. If someone questions, even for a moment, his claim to unparalleled greatness, they are met with withering and unrelenting retaliation.
Associated with these features is a high level of rage at a political world he struggles to bend to his will. It’s a world that he vilifies in his tweets, a social media monologue that, like its author, is occasionally perceptive but mostly destructive and sometimes paranoid. These are features of the emperor complex that drove Trump to seek and attain the presidency. But they are also qualities of a flawed personality that make his presidential reign highly problematic and unsustainable.
At other times, when his sense of entitlement is breached — the demands of his grandiose self-image betrayed — he responds with retaliatory rage and retribution. This becomes clear in relation to his political associates — the imperial court — with whom he makes common cause at periods in his political rise.
A strong common element here is that his brittle shell will not allow any scintilla of criticism, and any deviation from wholehearted support by courtiers, staff and allies is responded to with a flight to rage and vindictiveness.
Trump’s sensitivities are evident in his experiences with successive White House chiefs of staff. One by one they have fallen foul of Emperor Trump’s need to be self-sufficient in his political decision-making. Trump sees his advisers as either loyalists or rivals, and they are most vulnerable to his impulsive and bullying instinct when they were best doing their jobs: telling the emperor what he does not want to hear. Successive close advisers have lamented their inability to make Trump take advice.
The point is less that Trump won’t take advice, but that he can’t take advice: to take the advice of a subordinate is humiliating and he can’t do it — unless and until he can convince himself that it was his advice in the first place, that he was the author of this masterstroke of strategy or politics that would be universally applauded as “brilliant” and “amazing”.
Trump is profoundly insecure and feels threatened when prospective staff have professional experience, standing and seniority that rivals his sense of superiority. At the start of his presidential term he dealt with that by appointing courtiers and devotees — inexperienced juniors — to his staff.
His campaign press secretary was Hope Hicks, a 26-year-old former model he later appoint to the role of White House director of strategic communications, despite the fact that she had no experience in government. This is less a case of Trump appointing a loyal associate than of ensuring the power relationship between president and advisers is uncomplicated by appointing seasoned professionals who might provide frank, fearless and independent advice.
He has also drawn upon the imperial entitlement of his imagined royal family to appoint his daughter Ivanka, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, to senior adviser roles, although they had negligible skills for their positions.
Trump’s insecurity becomes more obvious when subordinates have a standing or get media and public attention he believes is rightfully his. In the early days of his presidency, the reported power behind the throne was Trump’s campaign chief executive and chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon, who developed a high public profile and received intense media attention and accolades from commentators about his campaigning success.
Trump regarded this attention as demeaning of his own pre-eminent imperial position and went out of his way to disparage Bannon, putting him down in a way that allowed the proper hierarchy of greatness to be restored in his favour.
Eventually Trump could not endure Bannon’s prominence and he fired him in August 2017, after which he belittled Bannon’s role and denied his influence. In fact, he trashed Bannon as merely “a guy who works for me” and said “sloppy Steve” Bannon “cried when he got fired and begged for his job”.
Eighteen months after he was dismissed, and well before he was arrested on fraud charges, Bannon was able to work his way back into the emperor’s favours, in part by publicly calling him “a great leader as a president” and a “great campaigner” — whereupon Trump felt able to say that Bannon was “one of my best pupils” and “still a giant Trump fan”. Notice that even in his renewed praise he keeps himself as the central object of admiration.
Trump has fallen out with other close court advisers — none of whom has lasted for more than 18 months — including chiefs of staff Reince Priebus and General John Kelly, and national security adviser John Bolton. Most recently his health expert on the coronavirus, Dr Anthony Fauci, incurred Trump’s displeasure, primarily because the president cannot abide anything less than devoted cheerleading from his courtiers.
When a subordinate’s advice is later shown to be well based, and Trump appears to have been publicly at odds with it, he reacts severely, as was the case with Fauci. This happened when, in a CNN interview earlier this year, Fauci said Trump had “pushed back” against his early advice about mandating social distancing to combat the spread of the coronavirus — an initiative, Fauci said, that had it not been delayed “would have saved lives”.
This was too much for Trump, and he retweeted a conservative call for Fauci to be fired. In effect, he was projecting his inner wish for retribution at the suggestion that his imperial rule was flawed. It is only when Fauci walked back from the meaning of his comments and praised the president for his handling of the pandemic response that Trump disavowed banishing him.
Others have not been so lucky. Months after Trump’s impeachment, for example, he was still paying out by firing those government officials who honoured their ethical duties in relation to the Ukrainian quid pro quo. Trump cannot ever accept the betrayal he feels about their conduct: in his mind, their loyalty is not to the republic or to their office, but unquestionably to him as emperor, and any deviation is met with aggressive disparagement and ultimately (in his mind) obliteration — by firing them.
Incidentally, there are interesting echoes here of Trump’s TV program, The Apprentice, where his signature statement was “you’re fired!” In the Middle Ages it would have been “off with his head!”
A central feature of Trump’s personality is his pronounced lack of empathy. At his press briefings, when he has conjured the numbers of COVID-19 cases or deaths, he has expressed little sympathy or empathetic understanding for those who have lost family or loved ones.
Back in March, in one of the more insensitive expressions of this trait, he conceded that he wanted to keep a cruise ship in limbo off the California coast rather than allowing it to dock because he wanted to keep the reported number of coronavirus cases artificially low. “I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship … If they want to take them off, they’ll take them off. But if that happens, all of a sudden your 240 [cases] is obviously going to be a much higher number, and probably the 11 [deaths] will be a higher number too.”
More recently, Trump seems to have given up on accepting responsibility for managing the pandemic, using distractions about employment numbers and the economy and law and order to divert attention from mounting infection rates and deaths. He has also urged reduced testing for the virus in the deluded belief that less testing means fewer cases.
The flip side of Trump’s narcissistic self-regard is paranoia, which manifests as a kind of persecutory anxiety: nobody is spared, he sees friend and foe alike as attacking him, and his emblematic expression is one of distrust in others. “I don’t trust anybody but myself,” he seems to be saying. “Everyone else is trying to undermine me and my claim to greatness.”
As we’ve seen earlier, a feature of his political persona is his denigration of his political colleagues as a way of raising himself up in his own estimation. One expression of this is the extensive list of disparaging nicknames he gives to both his political opponents and his erstwhile supporters.
Competitive rivalries between politicians in leadership positions are normal and inevitable. But in Emperor Trump’s case this takes a somewhat relentless and extreme form: he systematically belittles and demeans the activities and efforts of his party colleagues, as if only his actions are worthy and good. This destructive envy spreads to anyone he feels stands taller than him and, hence, one by one his colleagues — whether supporters or rivals — are characterised as “crazy” or “crooked” while his activities are extolled as “tremendous” and “perfect”.
Trump has a characteristic way of belittling real and imagined rivals who even momentarily challenge his elevated regal authority. They are variously “crazy”, “sleepy”, “sloppy”, or “lying”. Going back to the Republican presidential nomination process in 2015 and 2016, his rivals were “low energy Jeb” Bush, “little Marco” Rubio, and “lyin’ Ted” Cruz.
Four years later, as the Democratic party nomination process got under way, he targeted “sleepy, creepy Joe” Biden, “crazy Bernie” Sanders, “fake Pocahontas” Elizabeth Warren and, later in the process, “mini-Mike” Bloomberg.
Trump’s denigration of rivals or would-be rivals reveals his inner self: anyone who emerges to challenge his pre-eminent position of entitlement is a threat to his sense of himself and has to be cut down to size. His Democrat Congressional detractors are put down in the same way (“crazy Nancy” Pelosi, “little Adam” Schiff, “cryin’ Chuck” Schumer), as are his supposed tormentors in the media (“crazy Jim” Acosta, “sloppy Carl” Bernstein, “crooked H Flunkie” Maggie Haberman, and “little wise guy” George Stephanopoulos), among many others.
It’s no surprise, incidentally, that Trump hates the media, since journalists are most frequently the source of the critical reporting and commentary that he finds demeaning and threatening to his grandiose inner sense of self. It’s why he brands anything less than unqualified admiration, if not idolatry, as “fake news”.
Trump’s deadliest venom in recent times has been directed at his former opponent in the race for the White House, Hillary “lock her up!” Clinton. Trump has never accepted that while he won the presidential election through his majority of delegates in the Electoral College, Clinton nationally polled 2.8 million more votes than he did. Unable to be gracious in victory, he still has to belittle her as “crooked Hillary”, lest anyone think she might have been more popular than him.
It is worth considering who Trump likes and admires. Mostly it’s other national leaders — all of them autocrats — with whom he can appear on an elevated world stage. Foremost in his relationships has been his enduring admiration for Russia’s modern-day tsar, President Vladimir Putin. In new evidence reported by CNN at the end of June, veteran journalist Carl Bernstein cites US national security officials with authorised access to Trump’s classified telephone conversations with Putin as dismayed by the pandering approach he took to the Russian leader — in sharp contrast to the abusive tone he adopted in speaking to democratic allies in German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former British PM Theresa May.
Trump’s clear preference for authoritarian bullies has been obvious in his relationships with rulers such as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and more recently Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.
Trump’s relationship with China’s authoritarian president Xi Jinping has been admittedly on-again, off-again, and he has been ambivalent about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. At some points, Trump liked Kim, perhaps because when they met in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea in June 2019, Kim appeared deferential and compliant in his body language. This was appealing to Trump because he could satisfy his grandiose sense of himself as the dominant party strutting the world stage. Of course, lest anyone think Kim eventually got the better of him through his diplomatic game-playing, Trump looked to cut Kim down to size, once again describing him as “Little Rocket Man.”
There are any number of “A” letters that a decipher of Emperor Trump’s signature suggest: angry, ambitious, amoral, anti-democratic, adolescent, abusive, antagonistic, aggressive and autocratic commend themselves, as does attention-seeking, which characterises Trump’s pursuit of the presidential throne in the first place. This was not about Trump seeking to realise a developed vision of leading and governing in the national interest. This was about leveraging the foremost position in the country to attract attention to himself, to become more powerful and more famous than anyone.
The “A” word that fits best, however, is “arrogant” — a belief that he is better than others and knows more than anybody, even when the reality is that he doesn’t have a clue.
Trump’s arrogance is a defence against his profound inner sense of inferiority. He has claimed countless times while in office that he had extraordinary special knowledge about politics and public policy. Typically he has expressed this as: “Nobody knows more about [x] than I do.” He has claimed he knows more “than anyone on earth” about defence, nuclear weapons, Islamic State (IS), the courts, technology, the environment, renewables, money, taxes, trade, banks, healthcare, infrastructure, construction and campaign finance among an extensive list. It comes as no surprise that he has described himself as “a very stable genius”.
He invoked his claim to “genius’ again in March on a tour of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, when he felt obliged to overcome his lack of any real understanding of the laboratory experiments into infectious diseases that CDC medical researchers are distinguished for. So he bragged to the media accompanying him about his “great super genius” uncle, an MIT medical engineering professor, to assert that he himself had a natural ability as a medical doctor and researcher: “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it … Every one of these doctors said: ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability, maybe I should have done [become a medical researcher] instead of running for president. But you know what? What they’ve done is really incredible. I understand that whole world, I love that world. I really do. I love that world.”
Trump cannot even for a moment accept that he has — like the rest of us — merely a rudimentary understanding of complex medical science, so he has to exaggerate — in this case by invoking his connection to his highly accomplished uncle — to momentarily project into the minds of the media audience the thought that he could have been a “great super genius” too.
There have been other occasions when Trump has looked to present himself as the guy who could cure coronavirus, notably with drugs such as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. When his medical advisers warned that these were untested and potentially hazardous he pushed back: “I disagree. I feel good about it … I’m a smart guy. I’ve been right a lot.”
On April 23, Trump continued his “super genius” delusion by suggesting at his daily press briefing that a combination of UV light-zapping and disinfectant injected into the lungs could be a possible cure for coronavirus-infected patients. As CNN reported, when a journalist asked “why he was touting rumoured cures and not medically proven science”, the president reacted angrily, accusing the reporter of pushing fake news.
The next day, “Lysol” Don sought to further deflect the outrage from medical scientists by claiming he was only being “sarcastic”. Since then he has claimed that he had started taking hydroxychloroquine himself. Consistent with his relentless disposition to never let go, this seems like an attempt to buttress his first claim and reassert his authority after being widely ridiculed.
The letter “L” presents a number of possible interpretations — lewd, liar, licentious are just a few — but “lawless” is appealing, aligning as it does with Trump’s sense that he is above the law, that the law is whatever he says it is. The basis of the impeachment proceedings started in the House of Representatives were that Trump had abused the power of his office and unlawfully obstructed the Congress in breach of the constitution. As we know, while the House voted to impeach, he was acquitted by the Senate on both counts.
The point to make about Trump’s lawlessness is not that he recklessly flouts the law or wilfully breaks it, but that as a reigning emperor he doesn’t believe he is bound by the law. Like Richard Nixon before him, who famously said that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”, Emperor Trump has the inner conviction that his tremendously important position means he is above the law. As he said at a conservative student conference in July 2019: “Under Article II [of the constitution], I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” In effect, he believes he has an unimpeachable entitlement to rule.
Trump repeated the point in his media briefing on April 13 when he claimed “total authority” over the states in relation to COVID-19 lockdowns. This is less an expression by Trump of a developed argument about the limits or otherwise of presidential powers than a reflection of his inner sense of his dominant, unquestioned royal authority.
Indeed, his April 17 tweet inciting his supporters to protest against social distancing lockdowns by state governors — “Liberate Michigan”, “Liberate Minnesota”, “Liberate Virginia” — provides a hint of his inner state of mind in asserting his legitimate dominance, and that the law is whatever he says it is.
The second “D” offers a number of deciphering possibilities: devious, disordered, disturbed, destructive, deranged, demented, dissolute, distrustful or despotic; or perhaps — given its second occurrence in the signature — double-down, which is tempting given that when challenged on something he says that is shown to be false, Trump simply doubles-down and says the criticism of him is just “fake news”. Through his imperial powers, the truth is whatever he says it is.
But the “D” that looks closest is “distrustful”. This quality of never really trusting anyone was foreshadowed early in Trump’s term by his treatment of FBI director James Comey in a meeting at the White House on January 27, 2017, shortly after Trump’s inauguration. At the one-on-one dinner — which took place amid the FBI probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — the new president improperly sought to extract a commitment of personal loyalty from Comey, superseding the FBI director’s oath of allegiance to the constitution and the duties of his high office.
Having failed to secure such a pledge of fealty from Comey, Trump could never trust him, later calling him “an untruthful slime ball” and a “proven LEAKER and LIAR”, and eventually firing him in May 2017. As Comey later wrote in his memoir, Trump’s behaviour in office was “unethical and untethered to truth” and — in respect of his demand for personal loyalty as the basis of any trust and working relationship — like that of a Mafia boss.
(Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir)
“J” is a central letter in the Trump signature, and it has a singular character, perhaps aligned with jealous and judgemental, both of which traits Trump frequently exhibits. And then there is jingoistic, an extreme nationalism in framing US foreign policy, which conveniently matches Trump’s inner need to dominate, even globally.
With Trump, even the political campaigning objective of “Make America Great Again” takes on an aggressive quality as he runs down allies and enemies alike to elevate the US — but particularly himself — in the global leadership stakes. (It’s tempting to think of “America first” as really “me first”, because in his mind Trump and America are one and the same.)
Jingoistic he certainly is, but the most compelling “J” is “juvenile”, a Trump trait abundantly in evidence through his immature, even childish, behaviour. This was on show at a NATO meeting in Brussels in May 2017 in what came to be known as “the shove”. Walking with other leaders to a planned photograph at NATO headquarters, Trump momentarily found himself positioned behind a group of presidents and prime ministers slowly shuffling toward the photo-op point. Like a child in a playgroup, Trump abruptly shoves out of the way the NATO colleague inadvertently blocking his path — who happens to be the leader of tiny Montenegro, Prime Minister Duško Marković.
Trump’s intent is to assert his entitlement to be at the front of the group (not unreasonable in the global scheme of things, of course), especially ahead of this Balkan nation state, which has a population of a mere 620,000. His abrupt manoeuvre successful, Trump self-consciously flaps his suit coat as if to say: “Outta my way. I’m the king of this sandpit!”
(Image: AP/Alex Brandon)
The “T” is a big deal in the Trump signature: along with the opening “D” and the final “P”, it is the tallest letter on the signature page, over-reaching the others like Trump Tower on the Manhattan skyline. Treasonous and treacherous are possible, and transactional appeals too. Certainly Trump has been quintessentially transactional in his presidential behaviour, as in the Ukrainian quid pro quo, where his presidential negotiations and positioning were clearly motivated by the prospect of personal political advantage rather than advancing US national interests.
This has been a consistent approach, well documented over time, harking back to his early business dealings as a New York property developer where he made political donations to elected city officials, Democrat and Republican, to create a political obligation that could be called in to his financial advantage when required.
Transactional though Trump certainly is, the “T” word that best expresses a core personality trait is “tyrannical”. That is not to say Trump is a tyrant per se, although his propensity to fire those administration officials who cross him comes close to tyrannical behaviour. Indeed, there is a litany of officials Trump has fired because they have been doing their job in respect of Congressional and intelligence community oversight, but in ways that Trump perceives as offensive to his sense of himself as perfect.
Trump’s tyrannical trait reflects the fact that he has an inner wish — a compulsion — to dominate, to exercise unfettered power and control absolutely, to never be constrained by laws or principles or ethics or counter-balancing institutional authority. Like so many of Emperor Trump’s behavioural political instincts, it derives from his inner conviction that he is unique, he is a tremendously majestic and powerful person, one without peer or blemish on the national and global stage.
(Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
There are several “R” words that fit the bill — reckless, rabid, remorseless, rivalrous and raging — but the closest reading is “resentful”. Like Nixon, Trump is a serial collector of resentments and at times his political outlook is dominated by extreme suspicion and distrust, hostility, and a pervasive preoccupation with enemies, real or imagined. He stores up his resentments and takes every opportunity to get even, usually by firing courtiers who offend his sense of superiority.
Trump has an extremely low threshold of tolerance for anyone who doesn’t vow fealty to his imperial sense of himself and so he has forced out multiple senior White House counsellors, advisers and special assistants, national security advisers, the US deputy attorney-general, the secretary of state, the FBI director and deputy director, Justice Department officials, the secretary of Health and Human Services, as well as competent senior officials in many other departments.
This is especially true for a raft of independent inspectors-general, officials in oversight roles in the US administration who have incurred Trump’s wrath just for doing their jobs with integrity. In fact the turnover rate in the Trump administration has been record-setting. No doubt some staff have left of their own volition, but a number of reports have pointed to a toxic culture within the Trump administration — the consequence of capricious expression of presidential resentments — as the cause.
It is tempting to suggest this is not the promised “draining the swamp” as Trump might have it, but the trashing of vital administrative capability on the whim of a deluded and resentful emperor. Trump’s resentful trait was further in evidence recently when — hypersensitive to any hint of criticism about his “perfect” performance on the COVID-19 outbreak — he ordered a cut in US funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). Since then he has taken action to withdraw the US from WHO altogether.
There are myriad Trump traits associated with the letter “U”, beginning as it does numerous “un” words. These are the contra versions of the positive qualities so conspicuously absent in Emperor Trump: unprepared, unruly, unethical, unsympathetic, untethered, unstable, unforgiving, unthinking, unprincipled, unscrupulous, unreflective, and unrepentant. Unempathetic also has a certain appeal.
Unforgiving is relevant too, capturing that vindictive trait that he can never let go of a slight and has to pay out on the source. This was how he behaved toward his Republican rival, the late Arizona senator John McCain, the Vietnam War pilot and prisoner of war he periodically disparaged in a 20-year feud because McCain stood in the uniquely elevated position that Trump knew he could never reach, much less surpass — that of American war hero.
Perhaps feeling humiliated as the former military academy student who never served during the Vietnam War (granted multiple deferments because of his college status and later exemption because of supposed bone spurs in his feet), the best Trump can do in his unforgiving way is mock McCain as a captive of the North Vietnamese: “He’s not a war hero,” he said in a July 2015 interview. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump’s evident contempt for US military sacrifice was reportedly on display during a presidential visit to France in 2018. According to The Atlantic, Trump cancelled a visit to war graves at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris because (as he allegedly said to senior staff members) the American soldiers who had fought and died in World War I were “losers” and “suckers” for getting killed.
This is Trump rationalising to himself the “smartness” of his own unwillingness to serve in Vietnam. Any reasonable comparison, even in his own mind, between his avoidance of military service and the bravery of those combat soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way would be deeply humiliating for him, so to maintain his inner sense of superiority he has to disparage their sacrifice as meaningless or stupid.
“Unhinged” is the signature word of choice here, however, referring as it does to the emotionally unbalanced way in which Trump has often behaved, especially in relation to the present COVID-19 pandemic. When the coronavirus outbreak first appeared, Trump went on the attack, accusing the Democrats of fostering a new hoax.
“They tried the impeachment hoax,” he said on February 28. “This is their new hoax.” A little over two weeks later, on March 17, Trump was insisting he knew before anyone how serious COVID-19 was: “I’ve always known this is real — this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
Trump has been consistently unhinged in his responses to the health crisis. How else to explain his unwillingness to adopt a disciplined and focused leadership of the US response? Since the outbreak, he has relentlessly advanced and backtracked, uneasily trying to juggle the demands of evidence-based, scientific health advice in the best interests of the American people with his inner imperative to give priority to his own political interests through a booming and unconstrained economy.
Trump has been unfit and mentally unprepared to articulate a coherent strategy through this crisis — a pathway that Americans can heed and have confidence in, and the rest of the Western world can respect and follow. Through his unhinged leadership, Trump has untethered the US from its near century-long great-power role on the world stage.
The letter “M” offers interesting decoding possibilities such as manipulative, megalomaniacal, mad and mendacious. The one that gets it, though, is “misogynist”. This is not normally a term describing a narcissistic personality trait, but in Trump’s case it is important because it provides yet another revealing expression of his hyper-sensitivity to slight.
Trump commonly sees women as inferior, dependent, and even — in his entitled way — as his sexual playthings. The latter emerged in 2005 in a hot-mic conversation recorded on a bus when travelling to film an episode of the TV program Access Hollywood. Trump boastfully related his sexual exploits with women made possible by his status as a TV star: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Women are a special challenge for Trump. Defining them in his mind as inherently dependent, lesser beings, he cannot allow any turning of the tables when he encounters smart, highly educated and assertive women –as he did in the Republican presidential debate in August 2015 when Fox News journalist and debate moderator Megyn Kelly got the better of him. In a question to Trump, Kelly called him out on his record of insulting and disparaging women.
“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” Kelly said. “Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
Skewered by the question, Trump was doubly offended because he has been taken down by a woman — one he later disparaged in a repulsive tantrum as “crazy Megyn” Kelly, who had “blood coming out of her wherever”.
Trump is also consumed with resentment and envy when he feels that his entitlement is breached by others undeserving of his celebrity position, as he did in December last year when teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was chosen as Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019. Even though Trump had been the Time Person of the Year in 2016, he evidently felt humiliated by her elevation over him, depriving him of an opportunity to equal his rival, Barack Obama, who had been named Time Person of the Year twice.
One of 10 short-listed nominees with Thunberg in 2019, Trump’s humiliation was perhaps deeper because Thunberg was only 16, and he lashed out at her in a way that was designed to further cut her down to size. “She beat me out on Time magazine,” he commented testily, after tweeting his ire about her being named for the award: “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend. Chill Greta, Chill!”
Here again is an expression of Trump’s preoccupations revealing his inflated but fragile sense of self — a sitting US president feeling diminished by the celebrity of a teenage girl he momentarily regards as a rival for the high accolades to which he feels entitled.
(Image: AP/Kazuhiro Nogi)
So to the last imposing letter in the Donald J Trump signature: the letter “P” and the distinctive final signature flourish of a plutocratic, petty, paranoid, predatory, petulant, punishing and psychopathic personality. Fitting as these descriptions might be, the “P” word that best describes Trump is “Putinesque”. Like the word misogynist, Putinesque is not a psychological term but it expresses a behavioural trait of Emperor Trump in an instructive way.
Trump reveres Putin because the kleptocratic Russian president has the attributes that Trump aspires to for himself: unconstrained imperial power, seemingly unlimited terms of office, vast wealth, and no political rivals to contend with — primarily because Putin “locks them up”, or worse. Such is Trump’s infatuation with Putin that he cannot even bring himself to denounce the covert bounties paid by Putin’s Russia to Taliban-linked militants to kill American combat troops in Afghanistan.
Putin is arguably the most autocratically powerful person in the world — an achievement shared perhaps only with China’s President-for-life, Xi Jinping — and his personal wealth is estimated to be somewhere between US$70 billion and US$200 billion. By contrast, Trump’s fortune is thought to be just US$2.5 billion.
For Trump, Putin’s unchallenged position of authority represents the ideal of his own grandiose ambition to be the most powerful, the wealthiest and tremendously superior person on the planet. (It didn’t hurt either that — as Trump reported in May 2019 — Putin wrote him “beautiful letters”.)
Putin was also recently successful in rewriting the Russian constitution to allow him to serve two further six-year terms. Is it really outside the bounds of possibility that, if Trump looked to be defeated at the presidential poll in November, he could assert that the COVID-19 crisis “demanded” he intervene to delay the election (to a politically more advantageous date), despite the constitutional and statutory provisions denying such a power?
Trump has already started to manipulate the election with his assault on the capability of the US Postal Service to manage mail voting for the election. The most concerning possibility would be for Trump to invoke the National Emergencies Act 1976 in the lead-up to the election to disrupt elements of the vote.
And if he is defeated in the election, might he move to disallow “invalid” votes in the Electoral College to keep himself on the throne? Or would he unleash armed and lawless protesters, as he encouraged those who menacingly entered Michigan’s state parliament in late April, describing them as “very good people”?
Certainly, such manoeuvres would be entirely consistent with, if not exemplify, some of the core traits of the emperor complex we have now deciphered in Donald J Trump: delusional, omnipotent, narcissistic, arrogant, lawless and distrustful. Juvenile. Tyrannical, resentful, unhinged, misogynist and, perhaps most worrying of all, Putinesque.
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.
Helen Sykes has published more than 30 books in the Future Leaders series (see https://www.futureleaders.com.au . The next FutureLeaders 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.
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.
I am grateful to Fortyfive Downstairs for what follows. Fortyfive Downstairs is an art gallery and performance space in Flinders Lane, Melbourne: https://www.fortyfivedownstairs.com/wp2016/
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.
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.
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.
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:
a.1.a Evil behaviour, misconduct. Now rare.
b.1.b An instance of this; a misdeed, offence.
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.
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 example; backward 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:
1897Girl’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.
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  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  NSWCA 124 at  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  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  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  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.