Sunday, April 27

Sorry I'm late, but I've got a note

I'd promised myself I'd never read another Miranda Devine newspaper column. She sings from the Quadrant songbook (which she helped compile as a Quadrant editorial committee member). You'll find her arguments more carefully presented if you go to her sources.

It's not that I've closed my mind to conservative points of view, but lately I've been overwhelmed by the material I try to get through and I've tried to cull time-wasting rubbish.

For reasons I'll give a little further down, I believe time-wasting rubbish includes Ms Devine's newspaper columns.

Like a management consultant cutting costs, I've slashed my reading – partly because Merry and I were having some terse words about the piles of old papers in our spare bedroom cum study, and partly because I was becoming a little down about my inability to keep up with it all and still have a life.

caricature of museum director Dawn Casey

The other day I allocated several hours to go through the heap before carrying it to the recycling bin. All was going well, until I spotted Sydney Morning Herald artist John Shakespeare's caricature of museum director Dawn Casey (detail, left). It illustrated a Miranda Devine column in the SMH on March 27, Beware new front in culture wars.

Basically, Ms Devine rehashes just about all the accusations the hard right hurled against Ms Casey to get her sacked as director of the National Museum of Australia. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Ms Devine would like to see Ms Casey also sacked from her new role as director of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum.

I wouldn't have bothered with a response to Ms Devine's piece, especially since more than a month has gone by, but on December 24 last year I hailed Dawn Casey's appointment to the Powerhouse Museum with a post headed "Another honour for Howard's 'history wars' victim".

In that post, I said I tried not to be a Howard-hater, but I came closest when the then Prime Minister John Howard sacked (technically, failed to renew the contract of) Dawn Casey after her NMA exhibits enraged conservative commentators including Ms Devine.

In her March 27 diatribe, Ms Devine says Casey "will be forever hailed by legions of Howard-haters as the heroine who gave Howard 'one in the eye' ". Right on, Miranda!

Even only a little of what she's accused of is true, Dawn Casey is the most effective Aboriginal guerilla fighter since Pemulwy.

If Miranda and her mates are to be believed, she'd sneaked her subversive agenda under the noses of the museum's board, mocking the "three cheers for our British heritage" history close to the heart of all right-thinking Australians. Out there in the courtyard, crowds of people were running their fingers along dots on a wall, exclaiming to one another, "Good God! It says 'sorry'."

She almost got away with it, too.

It's true the museum's council was chaired by a Liberal Party elder, but Tony Staley is a moderate with a regrettable tendency to balanced views. It was early days for the Howard government, and the Great Leader still had a long way to go in stacking the nation's cultural institutions (such as the ABC, SBS, the National Museum, various education inquiries, the Public Service, etc.) with reliable men and women.

Still, he had rewarded Christopher Pearson, columnist for the Weekend Australian and speechwriter for both Howard and his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and David Barnett, author of an admiring biography of the Great Leader, with seats on the National Museum board.

Luckily for all right-thinking Australians, David Barnett was not to be duped. He compiled a list of thousands of examples of bias in the museum's exhibit labels. Staley and other moderates on the board couldn't see a problem, and an inquiry by Monash University history professor Graeme Davison found only a few minor errors.

Apart from its rehash of old accusations against Dawn Casey, Ms Devine's column is instructive about the Quadrant mindset.


The Quadrant mob profess a commendable commitment to free speech. In the Balmain Town Hall last year, at a function to honour retiring Quadrant editor Paddy McGuinness (who died of melanoma cancer not long after), incoming editor Keith Windschuttle spoke of the need to defend free speech and quoted the examples of Geoffrey Blainey and Hans Eysenck. This year, in the first Quadrant under his editorship, he repeated his words.

Blainey we know about. After his 1984 breakfast speech to Warrnambool Rotarians, the prominent historian found himself attacked from the left and cheered from the right because of newspaper reports that he'd attacked Asian immigration.

The attack from the left was inexcusable, but I think that at first Professor Blainey looked at both sides with disdain. His speech had welcomed the diversity and tolerance of Australia's population, although he did go on to warn that Asian immigration was pushing ahead of public acceptance.

As he explained at a Melbourne University history symposium a month later, he did not necessarily find this view palatable, but as an historian he had to report it as he found it.

Eysenck was a pyschology professor in London, the author of two popular Pelican paperbacks, The Uses and Abuses of Pyschology and Sense and Nonsense In Pyschology. Among his many controversial views, those linking IQ to race provoked student protests.

Hasn't Windschuttle got a good memory? If I remember right, Eysenck faced those rowdy students back in the late 1950s or early 60s when I was a very junior journalist and Windschuttle was preaching the wonders of LSD to fellow uni students.

After Keith Windschuttle's noble words, let's see how he and his conservative allies put their defence of free speech into effect.

It seems that in early discussions about the role of the National Museum of Australia, the ultra-conservatives had failed to win their way. Moderate conservatives (these labels are so awkward, aren't they? – but I can't see another way to say it) prevailed.

As the museum opened, with Dawn Casey winning praise for her efforts, the ultras struck back.

Miranda Devine, Keith Windschuttle, David Barnett, Christopher Pearson and Piers Ackerman – all relentless warriors on the conservative side of the history wars – shaped the bullets and loaded the gun, before handing it to Prime Minister John Howard and pointing out his target.

One hopes the target was not more clearly defined by Ms Casey's being Aboriginal.

The Quadrant mob's support for free speech is as believable as was Mao Zedong's when he declared: "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend." When your opponents step forward, gun them down.


Ms Devine is remiss in another way, too. She fails to tell her readers that two inquiries failed to find much wrong with Ms Casey's work. As I wrote last December:

Staley turned to Geoffrey Blainey, the historian most admired by conservatives, who suggested Monash University history professor Graeme Davison review Barnett's allegations. Davison examined them in detail, checked them against historical sources, and said Barnett's criticisms were ill-founded.

Ms Devine doesn't mention this at all. Nor does she say that with the ultra-conservatives still frothing at the mouth, the NMA council decided on an external review. As I wrote in December:

The responsible Howard minister, Rod Kemp, chose as chairman John Carroll, a conservative with connections to the right-wing propaganda organisation (a.k.a. "think tank"), the Institute of Public Affairs. Other members included Philip Jones, a senior curator at the South Australian Museum who had won the conservatives' approval during the Hindmarsh Island affair.

Balancing them were Sydney businessman Richard Longes and a palaeobiologist, Professor Patricia Vickers-Rich. One might ask: Where was the historian? But despite the appearance of a stacked inquiry, the committee, against all expectations, reported no problem with political or cultural bias at the NMA.

Ms Devine doesn't tell her readers this. She does say:

The NMA under Casey was notable, according to the Carroll report of the collection, for its almost complete lack of science, technology and industrial content.

That's her only reference to the Carroll report. Really helpful to her readers, isn't she?


If you'd like to check my assessment of the Carroll findings, go to the museum's report, scroll down and click on the attachment link to bring up the report as a PDF file. Its conclusions may be found in Section 6, particularly on P67 and 68.

To read a more detailed exposition of the conservatives' case against Dawn Casey (and against Professor Davison), Keith Windschuttle's website reprints his Quadrant attack of September 2001. No doubt a search of his website will find others.

Some of my post has taken material from Professor Stuart Macintyre's The History Wars (Melb University Press, 2003), particularly Chapter 10, Working through the museum's labels, but generally I've also checked it out with contemporary press reports. I'm aware Macintyre is on the hate list of some conservatives, but his current appointment as visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard shows he has the respect of his peers.

In the final pages of The museum's labels chapter, Macintyre attacks some of Windschuttle's claims about Professor Davison [made in his Quadrant attack mentioned above], and says: "Windschuttle's misreading of Davison's views is as dishonest as any of the charges of intellectual dishonesty he makes against the historical profession."

Wednesday, April 16

The wit of John Howard

Those who know me will not be surprised to know that I'd expect The Wit and Wisdom of John Howard to be a very slim book indeed, right up there with the Reforms and Vision of the Howard Government and The Italian Book of War Heroes.

But credit where it's due. Our former Leader does show some promising skills as a standup comedian.

In a self-deprecating address to the Liberal Party faithful in Brisbane the other night, his first speech in Australia since his defeat on November 24, and immediately following his lap of honour through cheering throngs of neo-cons in the US, he said that despite his many years in office, he'd realised his diplomatic skills need honing.

Part of being in Texas was to go down to College Station which is where the library of the 41st President of the United States, George Henry Walker Bush, is located.

We had a very pleasant occasion and a gathering of supporters and friends turned up and I was invited to make a few remarks and one of the questioners got up and said would you name three things that, you know, you are really proud of about what you did as Prime Minister?

And I said, well yes. Chronologically, the first thing I'll start with is gun control.

The Brisbane audience laughs. John Howard pauses, then with the timing of a professional comic, looks around and says:
That wasn't their reaction.

I have to thank the AM show on ABC Local Radio for this snippet, reported by the ABC's Donna Field. I would have posted this item yesterday, but like many others trying to use ABC Online's redesigned website, I found myself blundering through a maze of impenetrable navigations links and pages which refused to open.

ABC forums now carry many protests from users who say the new ABC Online Local Radio pages have been changed for the worse. And it may be true. I've never had so much trouble following up an item I've heard on the radio.

Still, if you want the AM report, here it is.

Tuesday, April 8

Kanyini – understanding Aboriginal culture

Photo of Aboriginal elder Bob Randall

You threw me a line called Welfare, but
it’s not as good as what I had … the
chaos and sadness we are feeling now
is a result of our history … Open truth
will set us free, not hidden truth.

Two worlds, two cultures. Perhaps there's no place in Australia where the gap is more brutally defined than Uluru. On one side, a luxury resort enjoyed by tourists from all around the world, and unseen on the other, a squalid township for traditional owners of the great rock.

If they do get a glimpse of Mutitjulu, the tourists may ask why the indigenous owners live like that. Surely they receive rents and fees from the tourists, as well as government welfare?

Perhaps some whitefellas begin to think indigenous equals inferior, that Aboriginal people lack the capacity to look after themselves or their children.

But listen to Bob Randall (pictured top), a respected elder, as he explains how dispossession has brought so much misery to his people:

Now we’re stuck between two cultures, two worlds; we can’t go back to the old ways because the natural environment has been destroyed. Nothing is there in its natural state anymore. We can’t get into your system because many of us don’t understand it. Hardly anyone has the skills to operate in your culture; they don’t have the education and reading skills to understand your ways and culture … so much money has been spent on an education system that isn’t working … it’s a failure. We need to consider new ways of teaching to incorporate old and new … so my mob can feel pride.

Pic of Bob Randall and Melanie HoganThe best way to listen to Uncle Bob is to view the film Kanyini, and to hear him explain the meaning of the word. In the Pitjantjatjara language of central Australia, it means connectedness – to a belief system, to spirituality, to land and to family.

It's a remarkable documentary. For its 53 minutes, it hit my emotional buttons so strongly I worried whether I could write a proper assessment. But here goes.

The early part of the film is almost a monologue as Bob Randall explains kanyini and the life Aboriginal people led before the whites arrived. He's direct, but almost genial, as he describes his people's culture. At times, he gently mocks whitefellas for their belief they have a superior culture and spirituality.

Cut into his talk are spectacular central Australian desert scenes, rich in vibrant colours, along with old black-and-white footage of naked Aboriginal men hunting, naked children romping in rockpools, mothers with children. And of Aboriginal people being taken away by whitefellas and put into whitefella clothes.

We begin to understand what the original Australians lost when the whites arrived, bringing the "benefits" of European civilisation.

Then a dramatic switch. Suddenly, the camera is taking us around Mutitjulu, confronting us with images of young people staggering as they inhale deeply from cans. We see dispirited adults mooching about, kicking at the dust and mud.

They are images we've seen only in recent years. Most Aboriginal communities refused entry permits to journalists, photographers and film-makers unless they submitted to censorship which deleted such scenes.

But the producer, director and editor of Kanyini is a remarkable young woman. Melanie Hogan (pictured with Randall as they collected one of the awards the film has won) graduated from the University of NSW with a first-class honours degree in economics, and joined Macquarie Bank – the "millionaires factory" – to work in corporate finance.

Then she dropped out, yielding to her creative urge to study film-making in New York and back in Sydney. Then, as she says:

. . it was only in April 2004 I realised I didn't have one indigenous friend . . . So I set off to the desert pretty much straight away, to learn all about Indigenous Australia – in a blackfella kinda way – through communication and relationship and following the direction of the wind.

At Mutitjulu, she was invited to produce a short film, Petrol Wiya, to combat petrol sniffing. From that, she teamed up with Bob Randall for the partnership which produced Kanyina, for which Randall was presenter and co-producer.

Trust me. Viewing Kanyina is a worthwhile experience, and the film would be an excellent resource for any group wishing to discuss indigenous culture. More information can be found here, including ways to order the DVD. The link to the study notes yields useful information for teachers and discussion groups.

In Kanyini, Bob Randall, born in 1934 of a Scottish station manager and an Aboriginal housemaid, tells of an idyllic childhood living in the camp away from the homestead. He was taken away as a youngster and never saw his mother again. As he says:

I was institutionalised because I didn't wear clothes or live in a house. In that natural way of living, there was no need for me to have anything other than what I had. It was not that I lacked love. As well as my biological connection, I had five mothers and six fathers.

Short biographies of Randall and Hogan can be read on the Kanyini website by following the links to "subject" and "director" respectively. The study guide is also worth, well, studying.

I had planned another leg to this post, but I'll keep it brief for now. Schools on the Woy Woy peninsula, where I live, and elsewhere are using Kanyini as an important part of a project called Yarn Up.

Yarn Up sums up its aims: Talk the Story, through viewing Kanyini and then discussing it; then Walk the Story as local Aboriginal people guide students over their traditional country, explaining how their people lived and related to their world.

It's a great concept, and I think it's going to work. Yarn Up tells its story here.

Sunday, April 6

You've been reading inappropriate material

From time to time, I print out my recent blog posts and send them to a friend who's serving a prison sentence in Western Australia. Until recently there's been no problem. He told me he appreciated them, and had passed them on to other prisoners who also enjoyed the reading.

You might say I had a captive readership.

But it's just come to an end. My last letter sending the blog printout (with posts running back from The Skills of Persuasion to On the Eve of the Apology) came back in its envelope, resealed with sticky tape and marked "return to sender". The note pictured above was stapled to the printout. The note is shown complete, excepting the little I've trimmed from the bottom to avoid naming the prison.

The breezy informality ("Dear Ian", from a person I've never met, and on top of that, a person who does not provide any identification) doesn't bother me, but the ruling does. I cannot see anything in the blog's posts which might threaten the good conduct of the prison. The note offers no reason other than "deemed inappropriate". It doesn't say who did the deeming, nor does it offer any guide to what would be appropriate.

I turned to the department site and studied the Director General's Rules, published online in a commendable move to explain them to the public as well as to prison staff. Nowhere could I find a rule which would exclude my blog or its content. Not satisfactory, eh?

But I won't do anything more. I worry that if I query the ruling, my friend might suffer.