Category Archives: Current events

RHSV Conference: The Other Face of War: Victorians and the Home Front

[A personal reflection]

A good  conference has a scope broad enough to bring multiple perspectives to the topic, but it is also defined closely enough for the threads and themes that emerge out of individual papers to weave something larger.  The Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) conference on Friday 8th August and Saturday 9th August 2014 succeeded on both counts. Continue reading

International Law and Gaza

I was interested to read Ben Saul’s article in the Age last week about international humanitarian law and its application to Gaza.  As anyone who has read this blog for any period of time will realize, I’m not a ‘resident judge’ at all and have no expertise in law of any kind.  I’ve often heard the term ‘humanitarian law’ being bandied around, but I wasn’t quite sure what it actually states.  So here, for future reference, are  the six principles of international humanitarian law.  Saul said:

How does humanitarian law apply to the Gaza conflict? The key rules are simple. First, civilians must not be deliberately targeted.

Second, indiscriminate attacks are prohibited, meaning those that do not, or cannot, differentiate between military targets and civilians.

Third, all feasible precautions must be taken to verify that a target is military not civilian before attacking it.

Fourth, an attack must not cause excessive or disproportionate civilian casualties in relation to the military advantage anticipated.

Fifth, it is prohibited to use civilians as human shields.

Finally, the humanitarian needs of the civilian population must always be respected and provided for.

Further, he says:

These are the bare rules of humanity. Israel’s right of self-defence, or the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and freedom from blockade and occupation, do not trump them. Self-defence must always be exercised in accordance with humanitarian law, regardless whose cause is just. Military forces must also follow the law even if their opponents do not.

So, on this basis Saul opines that both sides are committing war crimes.  Hamas’ rocket attacks are illegal because they either target civilians or are fired indiscriminately. Their use of tunnels is not illegal because infiltrating enemy territory, surprising enemy forces and capturing enemy solders are all permissible strategies of war.  The use of  human shields is illegal and by intermingling with civilians, Hamas is placing civilians in danger.
Israel may (he says- I would say ‘is’) also be committing war crimes.  Some strikes have killed only civilians while others have caused clearly excessive casualties.  The blockade of Gaza causes excessive civilian harm, and although Israel warns civilians to leave their homes, they are blockaded in Gaza, which is an unsafe territory.
No easy answers here.

The Other Face of War: Victorians and the Home Front, RHSV Conference 2014

I’m going to this on 8th and 9th August.  More information (and downloadable program) at



Abbott on MH-17

I see in an opinion poll today, that Abbott has been ranked well above Barak Obama and David Cameron on showing leadership in the wake of the MH17 disaster.  I note, too, that in terms of who respondents would prefer to stand up for Australia’s interests overseas, Bill Shorten came out on top. 

The results comparing world leaders do not surprise me at all. Neither Obama nor Cameron seem to be making it an issue of national identity in the way that Abbott has, given the relatively few victims from either of those countries.  A more sensible comparison would be with the Dutch and the Malaysian leaders, both of whom represent countries that have suffered, but who have expressed their sorrow without the hairy-chestedness of Abbott.

I do not feel at all reassured by Abbott’s handling of this tragedy. The man’s judgment is off. I have no affection at all for Putin, and I strongly suspect that evidence will point to weapons provided by Russia, but let the evidence fall where it will.  And it’s all about evidence.

In the immediate aftermath, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, Abbott declared Russia’s involvement:

I stress: it is not an accident, it is a crime, and criminals should not be allowed to get away with what they’ve done,” Mr Abbott said. “So, there has to be a full impartial international investigation and Russia should certainly not be allowed to stand in the way of that just because the aircraft has come down over territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels….

We also know who is very substantially to blame for those problems, and the idea that Russia can somehow say that none of this has anything to do with them because it happened in Ukrainian airspace frankly does not stand up to any serious scrutiny.

“I want to say to the Australian people that as far as I am concerned, when you have a situation where Russian-backed rebels appear to have killed Australians using, it may well turn out to be, Russian-supplied heavy weaponry, Australia takes a very dim view indeed and we want the fullest possible investigation….

“I just want to say that it is absolutely imperative if Russia is to maintain any international standing at all that there be complete Russian co-operation with this,” he said. “No provocation, no excuses, no blame-shifting, no protecting of people who may be backed by Russia but who may have been involved in this terrible event….

This instant rush to judgment is Abbott’s alone: both the Dutch and Malaysian heads of state cautioned the need for evidence.  No such qualms with Abbott.
Bill Shorten interjected his own bit of hairy-chested nonsense with his suggestion that Putin would not be welcome at the G20 and Abbott quickly adopted it as a “fair question”.  It’s not.  Australia may be hosting the G20, but Russia’s presence is not a matter for Australia alone.
Our response has been militaristic from the start, dubbed “Operation Bring Them Home”.  Then there was the declaration that we would be sending armed police to “secure the site”.  Oh we don’t want to get involved in the politics, says Abbott, we just want to bring our people home. As soon as Australian weapons are carried onto that soil, it’s political alright. Fortunately that thought bubble seems to have lapsed and wiser heads have prevailed.
He seems completely oblivious to the fact that there is a war going on over there. I note that neither the Ukranians nor the rebels have stopped fighting: in fact, the Ukranians seem to be stepping up their attacks to regain territory.
Australia did make good use of its Security Council seat to garner unanimous international support for an impartial enquiry: a Council seat that the Coalition had sneered at previously.  All this concern for international protocols is rather galling given the deliberate disregard for similar international protocols in relation to refugees.
It’s a good reality check to listen to European reports of the recovery effort: try BBC, or Deutsche Welle.  There you’ll learn that it is the Dutch-  those Dutch who have treated the victims with such grace and dignity, those Dutch who in the midst of their sorrow held back from lashing out until the evidence is in- who are taking the lead here.  Just as well, too.

Victor Hugo: Les Miserables From Page to Stage

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Well, the name says it all really. The stage version of Les Mis is back in town again and this display at the State Library explores the book Les Miserables and its adaptation for film or stage. It’s a paid exhibition ($15 adults; $10 for foundation members).

The highlight of the exhibition is the 1862 manuscript of Les Miserables- a real coup for the library as this is the first time that it has been seen in Australia. It’s a huge volume, and each page is written vertically on half the page only, so that Hugo could make his changes in the space on the other half of the page. The first drafts were written on loose paper, then transferred into the large bound book for further editing. A line was drawn through the loose paper version to show that it had been incorporated into the bound text.

With the increased frequency of travelling library exhibitions over recent years in Australia, we have been exposed to more and more of these draft versions of great books. For example, the National Gallery’s ‘Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries showcased a number of first-draft documents.  It is almost unthinkable to many of us now to contemplate writing much by hand, although some writers still do ( but surely they will be a dwindling band in the future). [As an aside, there was an interesting segment on the Media Report about a journalist who decided to write everything by hand for -ahem, two days- then photographed her handwritten version to distribute electronically as usual.] I know that the State Library of Victoria holds Peter Carey’s laptop but  the machine is not the same thing as its contents. There is something so material and human about seeing the towering tome of volume one of Les Miserables with its additions in cartoon balloons on the blank side of the paper. What happened, I wondered, when he ran out of room on the blank section?

It took Victor Hugo seventeen years to write the book, much of it while in exile from France after he was involved in an attempt to overthrow Napoleon III – or “Napoleon the little” as Hugo dubbed him in a pamphlet smuggled into France.  I am rather embarrassed that I was completely oblivious to Hugo’s political involvement. On the basis of his eminence as a man of letters, he had been elevated to the peerage by King Louis-Phillipe  in 1841 and entered the higher chamber (similar to the House of Lords). In 1848 he was elected to the house as a conservative, but seemed to become increasingly progressive in his views about poverty, education, the suffrage and abolition of the death penalty. When Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) seized power, Hugo left France.

I also hadn’t realized that the release of the first two volumes in 1862 was such a big occasion. It sold out almost instantly, and public readings were quickly organized for those who missed out. Within three months 100,000 official copies of the book had been sold, worldwide.

The exhibition is divided into two parts. The first deals with Hugo, the book, artistic depictions of the main characters, and sketches and photographic images of pre-Haussman Paris. As you might expect for a book that has been filmed so often, there were clips from the various versions, spliced together into a film loop. I was disappointed that the clips weren’t dated and labelled: there was a small panel to one side identifying the version, but once you moved back to see the film, you could no longer read the panel.

The second part of the exhibition is displayed in the Experimedia section of the library, which worked well as a space. This section is devoted to the Boubil and Schonberg “Les Mis” in its different manifestations all over the world.  It is appropriate, perhaps, that a book that had such a commercial and international debut 120 years earlier should spawn a truly global theatrical phenomenon.  There are publicity materials from productions all over the world: I found the Japanese Les Mis particularly interesting. This section was perhaps a little too commercial for my liking- capped off by the obligatory exit through the gift-shop- but I must confess to spending a good twenty minutes watching a film clip of the concert version.

And, I admit, I walked out humming “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

Exhibition open 18 July – 9 November 2014

10-6 Daily, Thursday until 9.00 p.m., State Library of Victoria

Other links:  The Conversation has an interesting review from the perspective of a Dickens scholar.

Enterprize-ing at the Dockland Library


A brand-new library opened down at Docklands at the end of May.  Not before time, say I: the benighted place desperately needs some sort of civic and communal infrastructure to bring people together as distinct from commercial businesses and high-rise apartments.

I notice that on the fourth Thursday of the month, the Docklands History Group hosts a talk between 6.00-7.00 p.m.   Last month they had the always-fascinating Robyn Annear, and this coming Thursday 24th July they are featuring the Enterprize.  The original Enterprize was John Fawkner’s vessel that warped upstream along the Yarra to finally tie up at William Street on 30th August 1835.

Michael Womack, Jess Murphy and Helen Ebsworthy will be talking about the Enterprize (in both its original and replica forms, no doubt), John Fawkner and the early settlement of Melbourne.

It’s free, but you can register here.  And how do I know about such things? Because I met a lovely woman on the train and she told me about it!


Moomba: the dodgiest festival of them all

Labour Day is celebrated on different days in different states.  Today, it’s celebrated in Victoria, and also in Tasmania under the name of its earlier incarnation as Eight Hours Day.

There are many (including me) who lament the loss of the radical and working-class focus on this holiday, but I was surprised to learn today that the original Eight Hours Day was not celebrated on this weekend in any event.  The stonemasons of Melbourne achieved the eight hour day on April 21st 1856 and had their first celebration on 12 (or maybe 15th?) of May that year.  Subsequently it was celebrated on 21st April each year, and declared a public holiday in 1879.  However, over time May Day assumed more importance as an international labour celebration, and the increasing significance of Anzac Day on 25th April sidelined the Eight Hour Day celebration held four days earlier .  Numbers attending and viewing the Eight Hour Day procession declined after World War I  and the date of the public holiday was changed to March in 1927 ( I can’t find why- this excellent article here deals with Eight Hour Day between 1928-1935 but does not explain the change in date.)  The name ‘Eight Hours Day’ itself changed to ‘Labour Day’ in 1934.  The date was changed yet again in 1949 (and again, I don’t know why).

However, while it might be ‘Labour Day’ on the calendar,  for many Melburnians it’s better known as ‘Moomba weekend’.  This Moomba celebration is particularly auspicious because it is the sixtieth anniversary of this rather retro and often unloved procession.  However, as with much involving this ” invented tradition” (to use Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase), even the ’60 years’ date is dodgy, given that the first parade occurred in March 1955.

The name ‘Moomba’ is dodgy as well.  I had taken some pleasure in the story that Moomba actually means ‘up your bum’ in Koorie English.  ‘Moom’ certainly does mean ‘bum’ and is still in use in Victorian communities in that way today (e.g. ‘shift your moom’ when asking someone to move up).  Lin Onus, the son of Victorian Koorie elder Bill Onus claimed that his father had offered up the name as a joke when the idea of a commerce-backed parade (which Moomba certainly was originally) was first mooted, mischievously suggesting that the name meant ‘Let’s get together and have fun’.

However, even this rather subversive story seems to be dodgy as well. Lin Onus later tried to recant it, pointing out that his father had been instrumental in the staging of An Aboriginal Moomba: ‘Out of the Dark’ at the Princess Theatre on 23-27th June 1951 with an all-Aboriginal cast drawn from local and interstate communities.  The core dance group came from Cherbourg, where the term ‘moomba’ did have connations of show or celebration, and it is possible that Bill Onus and his wife Mary referenced this in naming the stage show and later offered it as the name for the planned Autumn festival.

The fact that there are to be seven floats today is being loudly trumpeted but as a child who grew up in the 1960s, the heyday of Moomba, that seems a particularly paltry offering.  It’s somewhat better, I suppose, than the tortured ‘community’ parades of recent years which seemed to involve a whole lot of kids either dressed up in stiff and embarrassing national costumes to mark their parents’ migrant origins, or the presence of every circus and dance school in Melbourne.  Fun if you were participating, I guess, but not really the sort of thing you’d want to line the footpath to watch.  You can read this rather celebratory history of Moomba as a downloadable PDF published under the auspices of  City of Melbourne here, or a rather more critical view of Moomba from 1985 here (try logging in through the State Library of Victoria)

As a child, I can remember going to Moomba, being lifted onto my father’s shoulders or pushed to the front of the crowd for a better view.  I can remember the smell of the brewery one year, and I’ve located some photos from 1961.

I’m mystified to know where we were standing.  I think that the domed church in the right hand corner of the Coles ‘horse’ float is Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Rathdowne Street, and certainly the terrace houses behind the parade look as if they are in Carlton.  The tall chimney perplexes me- the brewery wasn’t up there, was it?  The parade has changed its route on several occasions, especially as its popularity has declined.

We certainly loved it.  With the booming of the drums still throbbing in our ears, we’d come home from Moomba and make our own Moomba procession out in the street with billy-carts and bikes, wobbling along on paint-tin stilts and banging an old saucepan.  Seems all rather innocent and sweet now.

Anyway, happy Moomba!  Embrace the dodginess of it all and enjoy the holiday!

Trains and skeins

I don’t like tagging.

But I don’t like the PSO (Protective Services Officer) hutch at my railway station either.  It sits up against the entrance, so that everyone has to squeeze past it.  These dongas are part of a state government law-and-order policy to put armed security guards on every station after dark.  No staff, mind you, to sell you a ticket or tell you when the next train’s coming.  Just two goons with guns.  Of course, there’s nothing to do on these very quiet, deserted stations between the trains, so they need a shed. And the powers that be have decided that at Macleod, it has to be right in the doorway.  That’s nice, isn’t it?

As I said, I don’t like tagging.  It’s ugly. It’s offensive.  It’s rude.

But so is that PSO hut.

And so, with great pleasure, I see that it has been tagged.  It’s the only one on the Hurstbridge line that has been so ‘adorned’.  I hope they do it again and again and again.  And I hope that they take this ugly, offensive and rude building away.

On a happier note, I see that someone who loves Macleod is yarn-bombing it.  How appropriate for Macleod- the home of the nannas.  It’s good to think that young ones are knitting away, with a sense of humour, with a light touch that harms no-one and brings only pleasure. Thank you.

Too much ‘democracy’?

A bit of a grumpy-pumpkin post today.

I handed  out how-to-vote cards at the early voting centre down in Burgundy Street in Heidelberg on Tuesday.  The early voting centre opened last week, three weeks before the election on 7th September.


Three weeks? you might ask.  Surely with postal voting, there’s no need to have early voting three weeks ahead of the election.  A week before, maybe- but three weeks? Two- or three-hour shifts for party members handing out how-to-vote literature between 8.30 and 5.00, five days a week for three weeks.  That’s a lot of volunteers- quite apart from the ones you need for letter-boxing and manning the booth on the day.  Surely it could be postal voting until a week before the election?

It would have been a bit bleak in the cold winds of last week (20th-24th August) but I must admit that it was quite pleasant last Tuesday when I was there.  I’ve never experienced any animosity between people handing out how-to-vote cards representing different parties at polling booths and Tuesday was no exception.  On the contrary: it seems that, this election particularly, no body is particularly happy with the choices on offer.


I was surprised by how many people came to vote.  I don’t think that five minutes went by without someone coming in.  These days parties are holding their launches as little as a week before the election, withholding their figures until the last days of the campaign, and drip-feeding their policies in yet another confected photo-opportunity over a four-week period.  Yet, you can vote three weeks ahead if you want to.

This voting booth is located in a former JB Hi-Fi shop that is on several levels. It claims to be wheel-chair friendly, but it’s not.  There’s an unusually high step to enter the shop, with very  narrow ramp that can be used to get to the door if you can’t negotiate the step.  But it’s not a proper ramp and once you enter, there are then about three further steps without a hand-rail to negotiate.  There is a voting booth on the entry level, but someone has to alert the staff at the back that a voter needs to access it.  I don’t know how some people would have been able to enter had it not been for the party volunteers outside who took off their badges and left their leaflets with someone from the opposing parties to distribute (which they did) in order to help someone up the stairs and tell the staff that someone needed to use the street-level booth.  It shouldn’t require this much assistance in something that is supposed to be accessible.

Then there’s the voting paper itself.  Do we really need 97 candidates in the Senate?  You can choose to vote ‘1’ in the Senate and the pre-arranged preferences will flow from that- but who do these preferences go to?  The presence in the Senate of ultra-conservative Family First candidates who were voted in through the re-distributed preferences from progressive parties is a cautionary tale.  I checked the website of the Greens but there is no information there, and when I emailed them to ask they referred me to the AEC site.

It took some finding, but it’s there.  Ye Gods.  Second preferences for the Greens? The Wikileaks party. Great. Not.  And is there a nice little print-friendly version that you can download to take with you if you’re going to grit your teeth and fill in the 97 boxes?  Nup- just the one version that has all the voting preferences of every grouping (all 4366 permutations) with  Danny Nalliah of the Rise-Up Party as the number one candidate because he lucked out in the candidate draw. (No doubt the result of prayer.)

Then there’s the ticket viewer at  Below the Line at  

It has a rather natty little tool where you can compare the tickets of two groupings by selecting the grouping you want from the pull down box and all the names will miraculously re-arrange.  You can see two different voting patterns side-by-side if you select two different groupings. But there’s no facility for a print-out showing the preferences in the order that they will be shown on the voting paper to take with you on this site either.

So, you have a choice of numbering just ‘1’ or filling in 97 boxes. How about something in between- 10 perhaps?  At what point does too much choice become undemocratic?

Humpf. I told you I was grumpy.


First Footprints

Did you catch First Footprints on television on Sunday night?  If not, hie thee hence to i-view and catch it there.

I think that many of us of a certain age can recall sitting  cross-legged on the floor of the school hall, watching black and white film reels of traditional Aboriginal people in the desert (possibly the Desert People film, produced in 1966?) It may well have been shown by the Religious Education teachers who were often retired missionaries, and in my mind the film is linked with the “mission boxes”, little cardboard money boxes that were distributed during Lent “for the missions” among Aboriginal people.  Ah-so many questions now, but not at the time.  Watching in the half-light of a school hall in the 1960s, smirking and tittering over the bare breasts, what was reinforced was the utter strangeness and primitiveness of a lifestyle so thoroughly ‘other’ than ours.

When I think about it, I haven’t seen such films for several decades.  I’d like to think that it was because we have become increasingly aware of sensitivities over images of people who have died, but I can’t imagine that this was the case in the 1970s and 1980s.

Seeing the footage again on Sunday night, though, I was overwhelmed by awe at the sheer age of the aboriginal peoples as survivors and vicariously proud of their deep connection with the land. No primitiveness now: instead resourcefulness, adaptability, grit, spirituality.

I found myself holding my breath at the footage of Narwala Gabarnmang.


I remembered reading about this discovery but I hadn’t realized the depth of colour and the intricacy and density of the artwork.  The rock shelter looked like a cathedral, with a similar sense of the spiritual mixed with the very human striving for beauty and expression.  I found myself sitting very still, utterly transfixed. I didn’t expect this to have such an effect on me.