Monthly Archives: August 2008

‘Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change” by Clive Hamilton

2007, 230p.

This book exposes the names and organisations behind the Greenhouse Mafia- the group of Australian energy and resource producers who lobby the government ( in particular the Howard Government, but given the uneasy shuffling of feet I suspect the Rudd government ministers too) to act in a way that privileges their own interests over all.  He gives this shadowy group definite names and identities: the climate change skeptics (William Kininmonth, John Zillman), the industrialists (Hugh Morgan), the lobbyists  (the Lower Emissions Technology Advisory Group) and the press (the Australian, Michael Duffy etc).  For this alone, I’m glad I read this book. Sometimes, when I read the newspaper I feel as if it’s nothing but an arena for lobbyists and PR consultants to buy space for whatever they are pushing; the mantra over “balance” means that undue exposure can be given to minority views, and the anodyne, deceptive and largely interchangeable names given to “groups” and “bodies” with widely varying agendas become almost meaningless.

But he also exposes the duplicity and paradox in the Howard government’s position on Kyoto. He argues that the Howard government, as the ‘cover’ for the Greenhouse Mafia, consciously sabotaged Kyoto because it didn’t want China- a major energy export market- to limit its emissions while at the same time arguing that Kyoto is unworkable and unfair because they are not limiting their emissions.

At times, and as the book progresses, he becomes increasingly shrill, particularly against Murdoch’s Australian , which detracts from his argument.  The book highlights that ordinary Australian’s concern about climate change stretches back deades, and that at the time of writing (2007), this commitment looked as if it were about to be activitated.

But I very much doubt that the Greenhouse Mafia has disappeared.  I fear that the fine-tuning of the response to the Garnaut report in response to “business export fears” is evidence of the Greenhouse Mafia flexing its muscle against the Rudd government as well.

Hello possums! The Age Breaking News!

Well, thank God it’s not just me! I read in today’s Sunday Age that brushtail and ringtail possums are invading roofs and gardens across Melbourne!

Ron Smith woke one night thinking his Hawthorn house was being robbed.  He crept downstairs and found two possums helping themselves to a fruit bowl in the kitchen.  That’s when he remembered leaving a skylight open.

One escaped through the skylight, but the other “got stuck behind the stove” he recalls. Removing it required an electrician, a pest controller and $350.

Only $350!!  I’ve been ripped off!!! I was charged $500.00, and as you will remember, they were still getting in!

I think I’m writing in the past tense.  I decided, after a few nights,  to bring the bananas back out of the fridge where I had been hiding them and to chance the fruit bowl again, to see if they were still coming in.  So far, touch wood and May Jennifer Get Rheumatic Fever (the family invocation against illfortune- mind you, Jennifer had Rheumatic Fever last about 48 years ago but it just goes to show how lucky we are in this family)- the possums haven’t been back.  But as soon as they are, no more Ms Nice Guy! I’m going to get value out of my $500 and six month’s guarantee.  I too, will again have a man on the roof with his bum sticking up.

Pardon my faulty expressive vocabulary

I see that Barak Obama has selected Joe Bidden as his vice-president.

I’m a well-informed person. I know who Joe Bidden is. I’ve heard of him.

Well, actually, I realised that I haven’t.  Joe Biden? Bye-den? Is that the same bloke that I’ve been mispronouncing Joe Bid-den in my internal soundtrack while reading? Oops. I guess it’s another case of the old receptive-vocabulary-outstripping-the-expressive-vocabulary syndrome.

Deep in my literacy researcher past, I remember that it took five plus or minus two utterances of a word that you’d read, but not actually said out loud, until it moved from your receptive vocabulary to your expressive vocabulary.  How versatile that ‘five plus or minus two’ formula is!  But there’s always a bit of a risk when you’re using a word for the first time.  Are people going to snicker because you’ve mispronounced it? Is it really a word, or is it something you just dreamt up?  Is this the right context?

Because, yes, Reader, I have snickered at those who speak of eppy-tomes  (epitomes) and mack-a-bers (macabres). In fact, I think I may have used eppy-tome myself until I recognized the error of my ways. And it took me several attempts until “apotheosis” just tripped off the tongue when discussing the chapter so titled in Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend with first year history students.

I wonder if the gap between expressive and receptive vocabulary is wider or narrower among adults who read a lot compared with adults who do not?  I’ve just done a quick Google and can find lots of incomprehensible research about children, especially with communication and reading difficulties, but not adults.  I think, as a hunch, there would be more of a gap with good readers.  I always pull out the dictionary when I encounter a new word, although if I’m reading someone like John Banville, sometimes there are just too many unfamiliar terms and it becomes distracting.

I heard both Obama and Joe Bye-den speaking on the radio. It’s interesting how American politicians always have to have a story that encapsulates something about the American national narrative.  I don’t think we do to the same extent in Australia- although then again, Kevin has his dead father, Bob Hawke had the bottle,  Paul Keating had Bankstown, Mark Latham had his ladder of opportunity, Johnny Howard had his father and grandfather meeting on the battlefield.  But I can think of other examples of Australian politicians without a personal/national narrative and they didn’t seem to suffer for it.

So, good on you, Joe Bidden/Biden.  Already I’m forgetting that I ever thought your name could be pronounced any other way.

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton


Had this been the only Tim Winton book that I had ever read, I too would be throwing every award that I could at it: last night it was announced that it had won the Age Book of the Year.

Like the swell of ocean waves, you think that it’s building into a surf-story, then all of a sudden you realise that you’re into the full-blown coming-of-age story complete with betrayal, sexual experimentation, parental estrangement, empty dreams and disillusionment. It has it all: beautiful writing that just takes you along with it, a wry narrator whom you almost instantly like, a love for the ocean, and an ease of telling that is sure without being pretentious.  Much like the public persona of Tim Winton himself, it seems.

And I guess that here lies my problem with it.  I’ve read several Tim Winton books, and I feel as if I’m reading the same story again and again.  His evocation of his Western Australian roots, his Christian background, his middle aged male protagonists, his collection of broken, betrayed and disillusioned people…they’re all there in The Riders, Dirt Music, The Turning and now again in Breath.  The sheer exuberance of Cloudstreet- probably my favourite Australian novel- seems a long time ago, and it was. He does Angelus, and his nostalgic male protagonists very, very well.  But I think of other authors- Peter Carey, Margaret Attwood, Joyce Carol Oates- who really stretch themselves and their writing into new shapes and places and I wish that, perhaps, he was a bit braver.

Retiring judges

One of my middle-of-the-night anxieties involves the degree of presumption I’m revealing in even attempting to comment on a judge’s career. After all, what would I know? Hell, I’ve only ever sat in the public gallery of a court!

So I was pleased to hear an appraisal of the retiring Chief Justice Murray Gleeson on Radio National’s Law Report the other morning by George Williams, from the Law School of UNSW. This is how Williams summed up the Chief Justice’s career

George Williams: I think you need to look at his role on the court in two different ways: one is as a judge, one amongst seven, and as a judge he’s well-known for writing judgments that are concise, that are direct, that really do get to the nub of the question of law, and he has a very strong reputation as being one of the leaders of the court over the last decade. As a Chief Justice, you can look at his public role, he’s someone who’s spoken strongly on behalf of important legal principles, he’s defended the court, and he’s been prepared to get involved in the media in discussing some of those issues.

Where he perhaps hasn’t had the same impact is perhaps changing the way the court operates internally. He’s been a good administrator, but we don’t have a court that’s perhaps made leaps and bounds in terms of moving towards more of a joint judgment system like the United States. It’s a court very similar to the court he inherited, and he hasn’t been a reformer in terms of changing those basic practices.

How do these criteria stack up with Judge Willis?

1. The quality of his judgments. Well, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems that his judgments were well thought through. Certainly he showed independence of thought- he was quite happy to go out on a limb and take a different stance from his brother judges- in fact, I suspect that he revelled in so doing.

2. Public role- speaking out on behalf of important legal principles. Certainly he was outspoken, but were they important legal principles or just a form of point-scoring? The scrutiny of the actions of public officers was important- but was it HIS role to do this? His stance on Aborigines- at a surface level contradictory, but on deeper reflection was based on important legal principles. But there’s always a “but” with Judge Willis. There’s a certain amount of ‘playing to the gallery’ in relation to settler rights in relation to Aborigines, the independence of Port Phillip from Sydney oversight, and the superior quality of Port Phillip without a ‘convict taint’. And his public role was certainly ambiguous- he absents himself from many of the public roles within Port Phillip Society e.g. patron, benefactor etc, and prides himself on holding himself separate. Yet the same man is heard gossiping loudly on street corners, and giving vent to political opinions in the shops.

3. Preparedness to get involved in the media. Probably too much. A bit of distance here would have been ‘judicious’ (groan)

4. Good administrator. He certainly was a good manager- ferocious in championing his own sphere of influence (BUT was that just a way of big-noting himself?) He resisted funding cuts strenuously (BUT ditto?); he was loyal to employees who were loyal to him (BUT did he need to shore up his position?). I’m sure that he volunteered to come to Port Phillip precisely because it gave him the opportunity to establish a court from scratch, based on his own principles and predilections. No doubt he had sniffed the political wind, too, and hoped that when Port Phillip became a separate colony, he would naturally become Chief Justice.

I don’t know if any of this has taken me any further, but it’s interesting to see what the criteria for judging judicial ‘success’ might be.

Things to celebrate

1.  That I live in UNESCO’s second City of Literature. I KNEW that there was a reason that I live here!

2.  That the Abortion Law Reform Bill might actually pass.

3. That St Kilda’s  stupendous Robert Harvey will have a send-off at Telstra Dome this Sunday- and I may just go!

‘Aphelion’ by Emily Ballou

2007, 493 p

There is such a thing as too much.  Chocolate, for example. Or wine. Or, as in the case of ‘Aphelion’ by Emily Ballou, too much scenery, too many storylines, too much thinking, too much talk, too many themes, too much imagery, too many pages, too much ‘luminous’ prose.

The book is set in the Snowy Mountains, in a small town that has been relocated as part of the hydro-electric scheme.  Four generations of women live in the family home- the 101 year old Hortense, her 80 year old daughter Esme, Esme’s niece Byrne (about 50) and her own daughter Lucetta (20 plus).  Into this seething mass of mother/daughter/aunt entanglement comes young Rhett from next door, returning to the family home after the death of his mother, bringing with him Hazel the American museum curator who barely speaks to her mother.   You can probably imagine the multiple themes here: motherhood, regret, what-ifs, relocation, dislocation, nostalgia etc. etc. etc.

This book felt like a Sunday evening serial on the ABC with lots of Australian scenery (just in case it can be flogged off to British television), iss-ews that we can all identify with, and multiple storylines.

But it wasn’t all bad.  In fact, even though the book was overdue and I was accruing a daily penalty, I wanted to keep it until I had finished it.  Perhaps, in spite of all these qualifications and criticisms, the fact that I wanted to reach the end is the most important response of all.

On Rhodomontade

It would seem that there is no longer a Melbourne Debating Society. I’ve found the Debaters Association of Victoria Inc. but no sign of a Melbourne Debating Society. Which is rather a shame, as it was one of the earliest civic and ‘intellectual’ societies of Melbourne.

Edmund Finn writing as ‘Garryowen’ tells us that the debating society commenced in 1841 with a Managerial Board consisting of President: Hon. James Erskine Murray; Vice-Presidents: Rev. James Forbes and Surgeon A. F. Greeves; Chairman: Mr J.G. Foxton; Committee: Messrs James Boyle, G.A. Gilbert, R. V. Innes, D.W. O’Nial and J. J. Peers; and Treasurers Messrs. Thomas B. Darling and E. C. Dunn. The Herald of 12 October 1841 reports its first meeting. It appears to have met weekly, on a Wednesday evening, although sometimes on a Friday.

In his book The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada 1791-1854, Jeffrey McNairn highlights the importance of voluntary organizations in the development of “democratic sociability” i.e. that it was possible for men to deliberate in public, using argument. In particular he highlights literary and debating societies as a site for this development. So perhaps it just wasn’t that there wasn’t anything on in Port Phillip on a Wednesday night….

Garryowen continues:

This Society attracted to its ranks most of the talent of the town. Weekly meetings were held at the Scots’ Schoolroom on the Eastern hill of Collins Street, and considerable debating power was rapidly developed. It was not a mere ordinary school-boy exhibition of vapid declamation and puerile rhodomontade, but an intellectual gathering, where questions of interest to the community were good-humouredly, intelligently, and patiently discussed.

Rhodomontade??!! Now there’s a word to conjure with!!! Merriam-Webster tells me that it means “bragging speech, vain boasting or bluster”. Well, there was certainly scope for some rhodomontade at the Melbourne Debating Society because here are the topics that I’ve found in the Port Phillip Herald so far

  • Topic in October: “The motives which actuated Brutus and other conspirators in the assassination of Caesar”. The meeting came to the conclusion that “the death of Caesar resulted from patriotic motives”
  • Next topic “Whether America or any other nation will ultimately supplant Great Britain in the scale of nations”. Conclusion- no, Britain reigns supreme
  • November topic “Whether India has been befitted by British Connexion?” No clear cut result here – the meeting adjourned after a long discussion.
  • The November topic“Was the conduct of Elizabeth towards Mary, Queen of Scots, justifiable?” provoked a “long an animated discussion” but the meeting was all but unanimous for the negative. I suspect that the strong presence of Scots emigrants held sway here- there’s a heavy preponderance of Scots on the committee (President, and both Vice-Presidents at least), and the meeting is being held in the Scots school room
  • December: “Whether the character of King Charles the First is entitled to respect? The question was decided in the affirmative.
  • January “Is the practice of dueling justifiable?” also decided in the affirmative
  • February “Are literary and scientific pursuits suited to the female character?”, again decided in the affirmative
  • “Is Phenology founded on reason and the evidence of acknowledged facts?”.

At the stage I’m up to in my reading, the Phrenology debate in late February was postponed because of the imprisonment for contempt of court of one of the members of the society, the young Port Phillip Gazette editor George Arden, on the orders of Judge Willis, the ‘real’ Resident Judge of Port Phillip. The night was spent discussing the imprisonment, and a petition and address signed to George Arden (although from what I can find at the moment, not actually made public)

Here the Melbourne Debating Society spilled over into Politics with a capital ‘p’. As McNairn pointed out in relation to the Canadian debating societies:

P. 90 “The political significance of debating societies thus lay more in their guiding principles and in the skills and sociability they fostered than in the content of their meetings. Since most brought together men from various religious and partisan affiliations, denominational and political controversy was shunned and, in most cases, prohibited. Societies provided a haven from the less-controlled debate of public politics, but as training grounds their political role was undiminished.”

The Melbourne Debating Society had been grappling with the issue of religious and partisan affiliation from its commencement.Within the first months, there was discussion over whether rules should be promulgated for the quoting of scripture, and one of the December meetings was turned over to a discussion of ‘the expediency of countenancing the discussion of polemical and political subjects by the society’. At its 31 December meeting (no New Years Eve frolics here!) it was decided to prohibit  religious and political discussions.

Am I surprised by the topics chosen? It seems that they draw on a shared knowledge of British and classical history (a knowledge that could by no means be assumed today) and an awareness of Britain’s wider empire- at least in the United States and India. It’s important to remember that these debates are conducted within the politics of their time: the 1857 Sepoy rebellion in India had not occurred; the United States at that time included the original 13 states and the states ceded through the Louisiana Purchase, but the western 1/3 of what we now know as the United States had not been annexed at this stage. Australia hadn’t seen the last of dueling: Sir Thomas Mitchell and the politician Stuart Donaldson fought a fuel over allegations of extravagance in the Surveyor-General’s department in September 1851!! (and I thought politics today was all theatre!)

I was fascinated by the “female question” debate, which was reported in some detail on 8th February 1842. It’s very hard to find reports of public activities of women in Port Phillip in the 1840s, but on 30th November, the Debating Society decided that in future ladies will be admitted, “their fair presence and patronage being secured, victory is certain.” They were certainly present for the Charles the First debate, which was “graced by the presence of ladies”. However, there is no further mention of a female audience in later reports, which seems odd given that the February debate centred on “Whether literary and scientific pursuits are suited to the female character?”. Certainly, if they were there, they didn’t contribute to the debate- only men ever spoke.

The Hon. President James Erskine Murray opened the debate in the affirmative by enumerating various females of literary distinction, and asserting that they were rendered “more sensible and conscientious in the discharge of their domestic duties” than women of limited capacity and neglected education- “in short, that it was easier to direct the intelligent than the ignorant”. The respondent, Mr Osbourne, contended that woman was not by nature intended mentally or physically to sustain the labour of acquiring that superior extent of knowledge, and that it would interfere with her devotion to domestic affairs. Women would no longer be fascinated by respected individuals of the other sex “upon whose opinions she rests with confidence as the safest code of general direction”- instead of being fascinated, they would actually take a part in literary and scientific discussion! Thoroughly modern SNAG as he was, however, Mr Osbourne commended the more beneficial system of education that has become prevalent in Britain, America and Europe where “all the pretty nothings which at one time formed the almost entire course of female education” had been replaced with general principles of science and useful literary studies. The Hon James Erskine Murray, in reply, decried this education that made women “in many instances as only fit to hearken to the insipid babblings of young men in preference to intelligence and rational conversation” He instanced Mrs Somerville, Lady Jane Grey, Mrs Clarke, Johanna Billie, Edgworth and others. Mr Smith, speaking for the negative, accounted for the difference in ability between men and women by a description of the respective skulls of the two sexes. Mr Stafford, for the affirmative, brandished Mary Stewart, Elizabeth, Catherine II and the Countess of Pembroke to shew that the sex gave evidence of genius , which no system of exclusion could obscure.

The warmest applause of the evening went to Mr Smith who “alluded to the domestic happiness to be experience by a Benedict, who, returning to dinner after the duties of the day, instead of finding the rump steak and oyster sauce &c. smoking a welcome to his appetite, finds his lady so deeply immersed in Euclid, or buried in the mysteries of Algebra, as to let him cater for himself.”

And so the evening ended. As the Herald concluded:

The subject of debate, as far as opinion went, had, we imagine, been decided in the breast of every one ere the discussion commenced. The question was too loosely and generally given for an advantageous discussion, and was decided in the affirmative.

So there you have it.


 Finn, Edmund The chronicles of early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852 : historical, anecdotal and personal / by “Garryowen”, Melbourne, Fergusson and Mitchell, 1888

McNairn, Jeffrey, The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada 1791-1854, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Dancing diplomacy with Kevin

According to Kevin PM,  when we’re dealing with China, it’s two steps forward, one step back.  And when we’re dealing with Pyongyang

…it’s two steps forward, one-and-a-half steps backwards, if not two steps backwards or two-and-a-half steps backwards…

(Age, Aug 12 p6 “Rudd pins deadlock on North Korea”)

And he thinks HE can dance????  Come on, Kev…we’re just GOING FORWARD.

How do you like your history? Sliced or threaded?

A couple of days ago I finished reading Australians 1838.  This book is part of a series of reference books published for Australia’s Bicentennial in 1988. As well as a dictionary, atlas, book of statistics and separate bibliography, each volume is devoted to a ‘slice’ of Australia’s history at 50 year intervals- 1788, 1838, 1888, 1938 etc.

1987, 474p.

The process of developing these books is almost as (if not more!) interesting than the final product.  The project did not receive money from the Australian Bicentennial Authority, relying instead on funding from research grants and university support.  The project involved literally hundreds of scholars, and in the case of the 1838 volume, spawned its own accompanying journal ‘The Push from the Bush’ which took on a life of its own.  Although described as a ‘collaborative history’, closer examination of the contributors to specific chapters shows that the main authors were Alan Atkinson, Marian Aveling, and  S. G. Foster, along with sections by Lyndall Ryan, Joan Kerr, Richard Neville, Beverley Earnshaw, Margaret Anderson, Barrie Dyster, Jillian Oppenheimer, Frank Broeze, Sandra Blair, Rob Linn, Frances O’Donoghue, Mimi Colligan, Elizabeth Windschuttle, Elizabeth Webby, A. J. Rayer, Laurel Heath, Tony Rayner and Martin Sullivan.  And who said you can’t write history by committee?

By deliberately adopting a ‘slice’ approach, the series steps out of the mould of the “traditional Australian catechism” of Convicts, Squatters, Gold, Land Acts, The Kelly Gang, The Anzacs, The Depression and World War II.  As Alan Gilbert and Ken Inglis wrote in the Preface:

By writing about one year in people’s lives…historians could avoid creating the most common illusion conveyed by narrative approaches: that history is a stream, carrying people towards a predetermined destination clearly visible to us, if not to them.  Slicing through a year, we might hope to see and hear people living as we do, taking some things for granted- the sun rises and sets, the seasons pass, people grow older- but at the same time surrounded by choices and uncertainties.  We might recognize people more easily as our own kind if we met them living out the daily, weekly, seasonal, annual and biological rhythms of their lives; and we would certainly understand them more fully by grasping the truth that the future that beckoned or alarmed them was not necessarily our past- what actually happened- but rather a hidden destiny, a precarious vision of probabilities, possibilities and uncertainties. p.xiii

I’m not sure that this rather subversive view of history is actually realized by the book. It certainly achieved a panoramic view of what it was to live in 1838, but the sense of contingency, false starts and misconceptions doesn’t come through particularly strongly.  As a reader, it felt rather blinkered by focussing just on the one year with no  antecedents and consequences- there was no scope for that very human act of  wondering what happened next.  It was if the book was shut with a resounding clap and a “no more now, time for bed!”

I do, too, find myself wondering about the intended market.  In Macintyre and Clark’s 2006 (2nd edition) book The History Wars, the series is noted as being marketed as a heritage item, in terms of its design, production values and cost.  The reason that I read it was to find an insight into what it was to think like an 1838 Australian ( a rather anachronistic concept- more correctly, NSWman, Van Diemen’s Lander, South Australian and West Australian).  Why would anyone else read it?  It doesn’t have a strong narrative thread: nor is it a reference book per se.  It is beautifully produced with copious and lavish pictures.  Perhaps it’s intended to just sit on the shelf??

Which brings me to a different way of taking one’s history- threaded.  I see in Saturday’s Age that the National Museum is again in the news- this time, with the second iteration of the multimedia display ‘Circa’, a revolving theatre that leads from the entry foyer to the museum’s interior.

A controversial review of the museum by sociologist John Carroll , also described in The History Wars and Graeme Davison’s chapter in Macintyre’s The Historian’s Conscience (2004), criticized this particular display as a “paradigm for what is weak in the parts of the museum that are weak, in that it leaves confusion rather than clear, engaging narratives…. It’s far too much a jumble of snatches of opinion, one after another, which have no coherence together…”.  As Katharine Murphy notes in the Age article:

The new version can’t be accused of failing the chronology test.  It ties up 40,000 years of Australian history in a neat narrative bow, highlighting key elements of the museum collection- Phar Lap’s heart, the Banks Medallion featuring botanist Joseph Banks, and the prototype handmade Holden from which all modern Holden cars descent- in an effort to connect the visitor more directly to the place, rather than engaging them with a more abstract, and at times political, discussion about the experience of being an Australian. The contrast between the old and the new, on any analysis of tone and substance, is stark.  There is now a clear beginning, middle and end, and a location of history in time and place.

I would feel a little more comfortable about this if Howard’s cultural warriors on the National Museum Council (headed by Liberal Party president Tony Staley,  John Hirst, Howard biographer David Barnett and right-wing columnist Christopher Pearson) felt a little less comfortable.  I’m not opposed, however, to the importance of chronology and narrative- it’s something that I’m grappling with in my own telling of Port Phillip.  I’m very much aware of the need to have ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ in the way that we, as humans, impose a narrative structure on events.  I’m fascinated, in Judge Willis’ case, by the distortion of time and distance in the Colonial Office’s attempts to manage what was, after all, a personnel crisis in one of their overseas branches.

But the ‘neat narrative bow’ of this display disturbs me.  It sounds rather like an advertisement for the ‘must-sees’ of the museum- perhaps it’s not necessary to go any further but just sit on the floor and watch what you could see without all the walking? Perhaps I shall just have to bestir myself and hie myself hither to Canberra to see it for myself.