Australian Notes

Australian notes

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

In taking action for defamation Treasurer Joe Hockey is breaking a great Parliamentary convention, according to Mark Latham. He was speaking in Hockey’s electorate for the launch of his new collection of newspaper columns, Latham at Large. He had no opinion on the legal issues. He left them to the court. His sympathies were with Hockey. He had no high opinion of journalists – ‘logs’ and ‘cowards’ many of them. But in politics you should roll with the punches and not run to the lawyers. In his own political journalism he says he has never had to make a correction or offer an apology! But to be on the safe side his next book is about breeding horses.

‘Bring it on!’ bellowed the NSW Labor leader Luke Foley. He was responding to the Liberal Premier Mike Baird’s challenge that the March 28 NSW election will be a referendum on the privatisation of the state’s electricity network (or more precisely the leasing of 49 per cent of the poles and wires.) On cue the 600 Labor faithful in the Campbelltown Catholic Club yelled and whistled their disapproval of any hint of privatisation. These true believers in big government did not include those ardent privatisers premiers Iemma and Rees or prime ministers Keating, Rudd and Gillard who shunned the rally. But they did include former premiers Carr and Unsworth who were keen privatisers and former prime minister Hawke, another keen privatiser. You need a gutsy cynicism to do well in politics. As a great American politician put it: ‘Well double-cross that bridge when we come to it.’

The widespread repugnance in Australia over the death sentences imposed in Indonesia on two Australian heroin traffickers reflects more the circumstances of their case than an entrenched and universal opinion. There have been no executions in Australia for over fifty years and none is at all likely – although judging from opinion polls roughly half the public would support the death penalty in certain extreme circumstances. But as far as there has been any Australian debate on the issue, the abolitionists have always won. When in 1968 Barry Jones edited a symposium on the death penalty he could find no one to support it. This is not the case in, for example, the US where capital punishment has had many defenders ranging from the philosophers Jacques Barzun and Sidney Hook through to Ambassador John Bolton. I can only think of one occasion when the issue was seriously debated in Australia. It was in the Bulletin in 1964/1965. I was its editor at the time when the liberal criminologist the late Gordon Hawkins sent me an article opposing capital punishment but complaining that the abolitionists were dodging the issues and winning the argument too easily. There was more, he said, to the case for capital punishment as a deterrent than the abolitionists conceded. I published the article to encourage debate. It succeeded. Argument did indeed rage over the following weeks, mainly between Hawkins and the lawyer Alwyn Karpin who opposed the death penalty as cruel and degrading. It is a locus classicus of the Australian debate.

There was always a dark side to Australia’s Grub Street – a readiness to work up xenophobic and racist prejudice against foreign, mainly American trash in favour of Aussie trash. It is well illustrated in a fascinating exhibition now in the NSW State Library based on the papers of the great pulp publisher F.J. Johnson (who began as Kenneth Slessor’s publisher in the 30s). The exhibition is called ‘Pulp Confidential. Quick and dirty publishing from the 40s & 50s.’ Australian pulp or trash could barely survive in the 30s against massive American competition. Fighting back, they played the nationalist Aussie card. In 1935 the legendary or notorious pamphleteer P.R. Stephensen (a translator of Nietzsche) produced a tuppenny pamphlet ‘Mental Rubbish from Overseas’ denouncing ‘negroid’ comics written by ‘American Jews’ and favouring the white anglo-saxon pulp novelettes and comics churned out by struggling Aussie publishers. (Asiatic men were wicked, Asiatic women treacherous, and Aborigines savage, although occasionally nobly so.) But they had little success until the 1940s when import restrictions banned American pulp. F.J. Johnson largely filled the gap and kept filling it for twenty years (until import restrictions were lifted again and British or American TV dramas almost killed the market for literary pulp.) There was handy money for writers who could knock off a western or a romance a week for twenty-five quid and for illustrators who got forty bob a page. The Johnson papers document frequent disputes about late payments but also give a sense of the fun of it all. While it lasted, it was a golden age for Grub Street.

Clare’s Law, as it is known in Britain, will be trialled in NSW if the Baird government is returned. Clare Wood was an English woman brutally murdered by a man she had met on Facebook. The law in England empowers women to compel police to reveal if a boyfriend has a record of violence to women. Pru Goward, the Minister for Women, will administer the trial. If it succeeds in NSW in reducing sexual violence, it may encourage the government to take more active measures towards eliminating an established and horrible form of violence against girls – female genital mutilation still widely practised among populations of Middle Eastern and African descent. There are strong laws outlawing it and stiff penalties but it has proved almost impossible to effectively combat such a private and secretive custom – still defended and maintained by older women.

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