'The burial of Burke' infrared
Examination with an infrared light source can reveal the fascinating back story to how a painting is produced, uncovering preliminary sketches, alterations and hidden details not evident in the finished artwork.
Let me pay respect to the Wurundjeri First Nation: I bring greetings from Cape York Peninsula. Thank you friend John Wiley and the State Library of Victoria for the honour of presenting this year’s Oration in memory of Sir Keith Murdoch, whose family we acknowledge tonight.
Being in a library, a glorious library, I'm reminded of my own glorious library in my father's room, my late and too long gone father, who one day when I was a child built a small bookshelf, the only bookshelf in the house, into which he placed all of the discarded books given by the missionary, which he and I scoured night after night – me searching for something interesting other than the latest treatise on the Book of Deuteronomy. My father left me with one invocation, taken from some obscure parenting book, a quotation from Francis Bacon to the effect that reading makes a full man. It is an invocation that has never left me and was my father's greatest gift to me: that reading makes a full man.
My subject tonight is the legacy of the great American public intellectual and politician, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the author of one of the most famous briefings in the history of public policy. As an aide in President Lyndon Johnson’s Labor Department, Moynihan’s 1965 paper The Negro family: The case for national action argued the US Government was underestimating the damage done to black families by what he called 'three centuries of sometimes unimaginable treatment' and the 'racist virus in the American bloodstream' would continue to plague blacks into the future. He wrote: 'That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary – a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have… But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries. The Negro family, battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice and uprooting, is in the deepest trouble. While many young Negroes are moving ahead to unprecedented levels of achievement, many more are falling further and further behind.'
Fifty years later, we live in the wake of Moynihan’s electrifying thesis on African-American prospects in the wake of civil rights. The discourse reverberated here in Australia. Moynihan’s was an attempt to identify the radical centre in thinking about the legacy of slavery and racism, and its effects on African-Americans, and what it would mean for the hopes and dreams they held after the catharsis of civil rights. These 50 years saw a tumultuous dialectic play out: between those captured by Moynihan’s striking call to arms, and those alarmed by its analysis. This discourse began immediately with a vehement campaign by liberal social reformers and leftist activists to oppose the adoption of Moynihan’s thinking by the US Federal Government.
The first riposte to The Negro family came from Harvard academic William Ryan, taking aim at Moynihan’s identification of the black family as the ground zero of black poverty and social crisis, later published in book form in 1971, Blaming the victim.
I re-read Moynihan and Ryan in preparation for my remarks tonight, as well as a bracing retrospective by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the world and me. Coates is the leading black intellectual of the Black Lives Matter movement and his book is a searing analysis of the ongoing American dilemma.
Consider this: up to 10% of black males in America's major black cities are in jail, comprising a tragic proportion of America's five million citizens in prison.
Last year, on its 50th anniversary, the Atlantic republished The Negro family and Coates’ article, 'The black family in the age of mass incarceration'. It is astounding to reflect that the argument that any attempt to attribute responsibility or personal agency to individuals in respect of social problems has its genesis in Ryan’s accusation that one may be ‘blaming the victim’. It became the most powerful nostrum of leftist objection to social analyses on personal behavioural terms and any policy responses predicated upon such analyses. In my reading of Ryan, however, I cannot gainsay much of its insight and perception. Unlike the leftist discourse that he spawned in subsequent decades, Ryan’s original critique cuts to the quick and warrants serious reflection.
I won’t rehearse the terms of that original disputation, except to say Ryan objected to the so-called ‘tangled pathology’ within African-American families as a misattribution of their predicament. Whilst Moynihan’s denunciation of the ongoing horrific effects of racism against black Americans was unequivocal, Ryan cogently argues slavery was not the immediate cause of the problems manifesting in black families: poverty and racial discrimination were their cause. Similar problems were manifesting with other peoples around the world in like circumstances.
I find Ryan’s critique sobering in long retrospect, because he reminds us of the danger of conveniently pathologising specific aspects of black life, particularly family life in the ghettos, without turning our eyes to the economic and structural circumstances in which these families live and the deprivations they not only suffered in the distant past, but continued to endure. Social policy responses in the modern era have been confined to addressing segments of egregious disparity without looking at the broader circumstances that gave rise to those problems and which, more importantly, drive these problems into the future.
The chief accusation against Moynihan is the Negro family’s causal role in poverty. This is, I think, unfair. The better way to understand Moynihan’s argument is that the Negro family was the victim and became the transmitter of poverty. Once entrenched, with all its effects on black family life, the family then becomes the means by which poverty is transmitted to children.
When I reflect on the history of this discourse over half a century, I wonder how much better it would have been if the insights of these two great intellectuals had somehow been reconciled. Each correcting and balancing the other, rather than repudiating each other. Instead, they became polar opposites in an unresolved discourse that organised a liberal progressive tribe on the one side, and a conservative tribe on the other.
Charles Murray’s 1984 book Losing ground, which laid out the modern articulation of welfare reform, is the legatee of Moynihan’s Negro family. However, the very alarm harboured by Ryan that the political and intellectual right would pathologise and blame African-Americans for their own predicament was realised when Murray and Richard Herrnstein subsequently published The bell curve, spuriously arguing that black Americans were intellectually inferior to whites. The problem of poverty and social inequality had their source in the innate character and genetics of black people, and the old assumptions about black racial inferiority found its new sociological cloak in The bell curve.
Attempts to build policy in the radical centre found their apotheosis in President Bill Clinton’s enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, aiming, in Clinton’s invocation of Moynihan’s original words, ‘to end welfare as we know it’. It sought to reconcile the behavioural dimension of welfare dependency and the structural opportunity of employment. These reforms were supported by the now New York Senator Moynihan, to the dismay of the welfare rights lobby. There is great debate about the success of the PRWORA reforms, but it is clear this reconciliation was dependent upon the availability of work. The deal worked during the Clinton administration when jobs were available, but could not be sustained in the economic downturn. You can mandate personal responsibility but not employment opportunity.
My interest is in the radical centre. This is the place where those in search of a better society might best hunt. It is the sweet spot representing the right combination of conservative, social and liberal ideas and insights. Rather than the weak, ‘lowest common denominator’ compromise between left and right, the radical centre is the highest, noblest compromise. It brings together high ideals with hard realism. It is high-minded pragmatism informed by intense dialogue and negotiation.
Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and other social democratic leaders around the world were the chief proponents of radical centre politics. However, its invention began in Australia with the Hawke–Keating Government in 1983. Keating was its greatest exponent. My own view is the difference between Keating as the champion of the radical centre – seeking to produce social good underpinned by economic reform – and John Howard, is that Howard was the great manager of the centre, whereas the exceptional character of Keating’s leadership was to drive the radical centre: to pursue reform and not just manage.
The politics of the radical centre have declined in the past decade and a half and we have retreated to that old tepid partisanship, plying for the promiscuous affections of swinging voters. The terms of public political debates are largely between the 15% of the far right against the 15% of the far left, with the middle just sagging. There was a brief emergence of third way political philosophies in the nineties, and the political strategy of triangulation, employed by Clinton and other so-called Third Way proponents, but this turned the radical centre into mere tactics, rather than a means of creating better policy and politics.
My thinking about welfare dependency and reform for my people and Australians generally evolved in the shadow of these developments. Daniel Moynihan, William Ryan, Charles Murray, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Paul Keating’s Working Nation were critical contributors to my emerging thought.
As perspicacious as William Ryan is in Blaming the victim, in retrospect his thesis informed a half century’s worth of leftists encouraging the poor to see themselves as victims. This was not his intention, but it was his effect. His riposte to Moynihan was a nostrum that became an ideology that became a mindset, and legions of leftist social workers and academics compounded the idea that the victimised were indeed victims and entitled to a sense of victimhood. I have long argued against the horrific results of this legacy. Inculcating a sense of victimhood in the victimised is for me to remove power from the victims. In a sense, the right’s relative heartlessness was preferable: better to object to the right’s hypocrisy than to succumb to the left sanctifying victimhood. The frog falling in the fire can at least jump, whereas the frog in the freezer hibernates peacefully unto death.
In 1999 I published my thesis: Our right to take responsibility. My conviction was in the difference between poverty and passivity. Poverty in the Third World, as I had witnessed in Vietnam, was of a different character entirely to the passivity in my home community. Like Ryan, however, from my reading of Theodore Dalrymple’s accounts of the social pathologies of welfare dependent white people in England, I saw clearly the problems caused by welfare are not racially or culturally unique. They apply to any peoples placed in similar circumstances. Dalrymple’s accounts could well have been written about the communities I know in Cape York.
My thesis was based on the idea we needed to assume responsibility as a power. As a power to take control over our lives and to have the kind of self-determination that successful citizens, communities and peoples need, expect and are entitled to in a liberal and social democratic society. Like Moynihan, my thesis aroused objections from the Australian left, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. A similar discourse that engulfed the Moynihan report played out in a provincial echo here in Australia.
I want to go through the main contentions in this discourse that have eluded common ground. Firstly, in relation to social disadvantage and poverty, the issue of explaining the ultimate origin of these problems going back to the colonial past, to the legacy of racism and exclusion, versus more proximate explanations such as Indigenous communities leaving the cattle industry and joining the welfare rolls, and the rise of substance abuse epidemics, is the subject of great convulsion. My argument has been that, though historical wrongs have ongoing impacts, many problems now manifest in our communities are of recent origin. They concern the rise of substance abuse epidemics and welfare dependency in recent decades.
Another debate centres on causation. What drives poverty – is it the structural circumstance of disadvantaged peoples, or the behaviour of the people themselves that explain the cause of their problems?
Yet another dimension is the effect of racism. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced and continue to experience appalling racism in Australian society. But in responding to that racism, should we inculcate a sense of victimhood in the victimised, or should we resist racism whilst ensuring it does not become our burden? I mean not in any way to diminish its soul-crushing effects on individuals and communities – I only mean to say that we should never nurture a sense of victimhood, otherwise we let the racists win.
And finally, the whole question about agency. Should we focus on personal agency or structural reform? The left say structural reform and the right say personal agency. Like Clinton and Obama, I say both/and. The crucial question is, however: what should the relative emphasis be? My own view in relation to analysis: at least 51% is structure and 49% is agency. However, when it comes to action and what we should do and must do, then my argument is it is at least 51% agency and 49% structure. Because at the end of the day, it is personal agency that will drive any structural reform. We can’t just sit back and hope structural reform will somehow happen, and absolve us of the necessity of agency. This is the passive leftist daydreaming of social justice. Social justice in truth is secured when, two by two, clutching our children to our breasts, we climb the stairs of social progress in pursuit of better lives for our families, animated by the engine of our own liberal self-interest, whilst supported by the social underpinnings of that staircase built by the distribution of opportunity.
We need strong, healthy, educated children to emerge in distressed communities, whilst at the same time working for structural change. The stronger our children are, the better they will be able to fight for future reform.
In 2015, eight regional communities across Indigenous Australia provided the Federal Government an agenda for Empowered communities, which grapples with the structural dimensions of Indigenous empowerment. This blueprint sought to answer the call for empowerment made in the 1990 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Twenty-five years after the Commission, the number of Indigenous people in prison has doubled. Australia’s Indigenous imprisonment rate is the highest in the world: 27% of our prisoners come from 3% of the population. No statistic speaks more profoundly to the structural nature of our predicament than this one. If there is not a structural, indeed constitutional basis for 3% of any society filling 27% of its jails, then we would have to subscribe to a theory of innate criminality on the part of those peoples. The most notorious figures concerning the Indigenous plight in this country make plain this is not a problem of criminology or socio-economic development – this is a problem of disempowerment derived from that people’s status in the nation.
We proposed a comprehensive policy paradigm for consideration by federal, state and territory governments. Essentially, the challenge of creating a level playing field between the elephants of government and the mice of Indigenous Australia is to find the right fulcrum between the two, to create a relationship of negotiation and mutual responsibility and respect, rather than a top-down relationship of mendicancy and control.
The other structural agenda that is imperative, in my view, is the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. This, too, is about empowerment and responsibility. Australia’s First Nations must be empowered with a voice in relation to the laws and policies that affect our people.
Finally, the country needs to embrace the Indigenous heritage of Australia in a way that celebrates it as the heritage of the entire nation, and which provides assurance to our First Nations that the extraordinary languages and cultures of this land may endure long on this continent. As they have done for more than 50,000 years.
Empowerment, recognition and cultural embrace. These are the structural agendas of Indigenous policy to which we must employ the shoulders of the nation. But achieving them must be the mutual responsibility of Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians alike. We all recognise the problems and yearn for solutions. The question is: will the nation’s leaders take up this challenge? Are we willing to work together to make the paradigm shifts that are needed? Is anybody willing to lead?
As a nation, we must have the courage to change the way we do business in Indigenous affairs. I put these views forward from the unfortunate conclusion that there is little that is promising in what has been done and is being done under the banner of ‘welfare reform’ in our country. Fiddling around with entitlement design and conditions is not by itself going to reform this scene. They will be components of a comprehensive agenda, but they are not sufficient to make reform.
Indeed, we have probably worsened things with the move to outsourcing human service delivery to the private sector. Whilst this outsourcing may be said to be more efficient, the truth is that we have now created and entrenched industries whose sole rationale is the existence of social problems. Beyond the employment and training services industries, we now have private-sector industries in all manner of social need and misery: the dead end of which is child protection. The profit motive now exists in the space that separates lost children from their mothers’ bosoms. These vampire industries have completely colonised Indigenous Australia, and constitute the Australian welfare state’s main response to poverty and the problems that arose from welfare dependency.
Now that rentals flow in these industries, there is no incentive for players work to resolve the social problems that is their market. Rather, the imperative now is to simply manage and indeed sustain these problems. The purveyors of quasi-markets of outsourced government service delivery now hold the commanding heights, and resist reform.
My belief has always been that we need to pursue reform on both fronts: at the behaviour and structural levels. I do not resile for one minute from mutual responsibility and conditional welfare. By themselves they will not solve our problems but there is no escaping the fact that disadvantage over time becomes dysfunction, that poverty over time becomes passivity.
This is where our hindsight on William Ryan has 50 years more evidence. The struggle for structural reform is not easy. Even where we have developed concrete agendas for empowerment, the country’s political leaders do not know how to respond. If I have learned anything these past 15 years, it is that reforms to secure the radical centre on poverty and disadvantage require national leaders to lead them. You need the equivalent of Paul Keating to lead real social reform, as the flip side of economic reform. The radical centre cannot be secured by activists and provocateurs from the outside, and neither by minor ministers. Only a Lyndon Johnson or Paul Keating can have the dexterity and authority to do what needs to be done.
Finally, let me tell you why I so passionately believe that welfare reform and structural reform is crucial. My friend Danny Gilbert, founder of Gilbert + Tobin, is here tonight, and together with an extraordinary group of corporate leaders including Ann Sherry, former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, Gab Trainor, they support us in the prosecution of our reform agenda. We are confident of the progress we are making. We are stemming the transmission of disadvantage: I see it with my own eyes every day. From the first university graduate of my own community, today there are hundreds of students graduating from the highest quality boarding schools in Queensland, and these young men and women now find themselves in universities across the nation. They are graduating with degrees in law, nursing, engineering and medicine. Some of them are now starting their own families and I can assure you that the transmission of poverty is now well in reverse with these young men and women. They are transmitting aspiration and hope to their children.
And then there is the ultimate short-circuit – a job. There is no more effective a measure that will stop intergenerational welfare reform and dependency in its tracks than a parent going to work every day.
Let me show this short iPhone video of this beautiful young girl from the Coen campus of my greatest prize, the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy. She has received direct instruction as a pre-prep student, and is putting the magical pieces of reading together. She is four years old and on the way to reading by the time she starts primary school. And she is no different from her colleagues.
These are the great pleasures of my work. Nothing excites me more than seeing this kind of magic. I have utmost optimism for this little girl’s future. Her parents send her to school at above 95% attendance rates. Her family puts money aside into a trust account for her education every week. She has hundreds and at times more than a thousand dollars in her trust fund, depending whether uniforms, tuckshop, musical instruments and books have been purchased from her funds. Her mother and father know something is going on for their beautiful child, and they are engaged.
The only thing I worry about is whether her black skin will raise barriers to her future, and whether she will enjoy her Aboriginal language and heritage, along with all of the other great privileges of her Australian citizenship.
While I hope she will develop her own resilience to the slings and arrows that she will surely face, I pray that she will have the future she deserves and has reason to value.
Examination with an infrared light source can reveal the fascinating back story to how a painting is produced, uncovering preliminary sketches, alterations and hidden details not evident in the finished artwork.
William Strutt's large-scale historic paintings were based on a succession of sketches, which became the building blocks for the final artwork.
Touch or hover over the picture below to see the meticulous sketches that formed the foundation for his masterpiece, Bushrangers. You can also hide the finished artwork, to view the series of composite images in full.
Well thankyou. I just failed the IQ test about how to get up here.
Thankyou for honouring me by coming out and I do hope this isn't simply a lecture but actually an animated conversation, because what I'm presenting comes with no definitive answers or orthodoxy, and being Victorian for most of us, I'm assuming, is something that we in dwell. It's our lived experience and, therefore, we bring a whole range of perceptions to what that's all about.
Thanks for the welcome. Great to be back in harness with Jill Singer. We were on the Real Republic ticket together at the constitutional convention. When we got elected on our ticket and it went really successful bringing in a Republic, Jill. That one really worked.
But this evening, I want us to think a little bit about Victoria. And to say that, it's not about Sydney. I can quote, and we all know them. The famous David Williamson line in Emerald City, ‘In Melbourne, people anguish over the meaning of existence. In Sydney, the meaning's given. It's to get a harbour view’.
We like to think we're deep and they're shallow, and we grapple with existential ideas. Now there, I think, is some truth in that. Neil Lawrence, an old friend of mine, was down today. He grew up here in Melbourne. You might have seen him on the Gruen Transfer, and he did the Kevin 07 campaign and the mining company's campaign that he doesn't like to talk about so much.
He's lived in Sydney now for 20 years. And I told him, I'm talking about this topic and he said, ‘Well, you can quote me’, saying, ‘in Melbourne, people are much more open to big ideas and discussing them. He said, that, for me, is the difference between Melbourne and Sydney’. Now, that's his experience.
But tonight, a challenge in saying something about Victoria and Melbourne, in particular, it's not to think in comparative or competitive terms, Melbourne versus Sydney. Not all of us do that but here's a story, sounds like a joke but it's actually true. Two Melbourne office workers dress fashionably in black and a little festive dark grey. Walk into a bar. It's a small, dark bar hidden in a small, dark Melbourne laneway. It's a very fashionable bar, a few people know about it and it's packed out by the noise. But, as the crowd dies down, these two get into a serious conversation because it's past six o'clock on a Friday, they're on their second drink, they're putting their working week behind them. The conversation becomes speculative and philosophical, like we do in Melbourne. We're deep. Ruminating on existence and their pr, their present circumstance, one says, you know?
Right now, people are sitting in brilliantly lit pokey-infested pubs all over Sydney. Sydney does have 10% of all the worlds’ pokeys, so that's probably a good guess. And right up there, in Sydney, they're thinking how wonderful it is to be here. How they've got really the best of life. You know the harbour, the sun when it's not raining, the beach culture, all of that. And they're thinking that down here in Melbourne, people are hunkered down against the grim weather, inside darkly-lit bars like this one, wearing black and talking about Sydney. But what they don't realise is, we never think about Sydney. Well, that is, sometimes the experience Sydney-siders say to me. On my board, I've got a few and they say, ‘You're obsessed with Sydney down here, we never think about you’.
Well tonight, let's think a bit about Victoria, but without it necessarily being comparative. What does Victoria have that sets us apart? Is it a question of having the best of everything, or being the best at everything? Probably not, but there is a case to be made. Let's start with Melbourne.
Apparently, we've been the world’s most liveable city for the last four years running. That's according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. We're, or at least one of them, year after year, we're ranked with places like Vancouver and Vienna. Going back beyond four years.
We have a strong claim as the sporting capital of Australia. Of course AFL, Melbourne Cup, Australian Open, tennis and golf. We have a real tribal culture in football. And even when we're talking football, Neil reminded me of this. It's serious talk. It’s actually serious strategy, and tactics, and coaching, and plays. We take ideas seriously even if it's sport.
We show up, not just as theatre crowds, but at our sporting team's crowds. Think about 86,000 the other day at the MCG for a cricket game that didn't even involve Australia. I was part of the record 90,000 State of Origin league match, that's league rugby or they call it league. Queensland versus New South Wales. First time it was ever played. Out of one of those states at the MCG and it had the biggest crowd ever in league history, 90,000. I was there. 89,000 of us were there saying, why have they stopped the play? Why are they throwing the ball? What are the rules? We don't get this at all. But being Melbourne, we went. We went. We were there.
The prestigious QS rankings say that Melbourne is second only to Paris among the best cities in the world to be a student. That's a pretty high praise. We have Australia's largest university and student numbers Monash, and its’ largest and wealthiest in research, Melbourne University.
Alongside the sporting coliseums, we have just fantastic public spaces. South Bank, Burang Mar, Federation Square, the exhibition building, fantastic in White Night, I don't know if you saw it the other night. These are extraordinary public institutions of public culture, with the National Gallery, the Melbourne Museum, the State Library a national treasure, here we are, and Australia's best regional art gallery in Bendigo.
Perhaps the best theatre, certainly the best food, definitely the best coffee, and as former-BBC correspondent in Australia, Nick Ryan, put it, ‘We, in Melbourne, are a lifestyle superpower’.
But all these riches, great as they are, don't explain, necessarily, what's really special about our patch of Australia.
We understand the history of how we got here and what built just extraordinary buildings, like the one we're in. It was gold.
Visitors to Victoria are often struck by our confidence and optimism. One of the sources of Victoria's and Melbourne's confidence is the heritage we're still resting on from gold. It’s a sense that success and prosperity is our destiny. It's a metaphorical truth underpinned by the literal geological fact that the state is underlayed by precious metal. This instinctive faith is caught in a series of slogans we've used to encourage ourselves for now nearly two centuries. Australia Felix, Marvelous Melbourne, The Jewel in the Crown, the Garden State, conjuring up in Victoria a luxurious Eden. The establishment and jewel in the Liberal Party crown. The establishment for power and elite, its past, but it was here in Melbourne.
So, the real history of Victoria may be dotted with boom and bust. But we get up, we manage to dust off our optimism after a bust and we start again. I was quite struck by this when I was invited to speak to a gathering in Perth about four or five years ago. The event was a reception at Government House, it was attended by Western Australia's great and good, Gina Rinehart, and lots of the wealthy were there.
It was organised by Giving West, an organisation they are launching to promote philanthropy in Western Australia. They're doing it in the middle of a mining-boom. And leading West, leading citizens in Western Australia, were deeply concerned that the prosperity was being wasted. They wanted to encourage a new wave of philanthropy, so the future generations of West Australians would have some kind of legacy.
They asked me to come over and speak, always dangerous being an easterner going over there. On the subject, what has Victoria to show for The Gold Rush? What can we learn? And I did the figures on per capita giving, and found that Western Australia was by far the lowest, per capita, giving to philanthropy and charity anywhere in Australia. The highest interestingly is ACT, then us and NSW, neck and neck. We're a bit ahead. Western Australia, really, really low.
Well, when I look into this question, what does Victoria have to show for the gold rush? Lots and lots. It brought huge immigration and growth. You know, in 1840, when Governor Latrobe came here first there was about 4,000, 5,000 people here. By the end of the gold rush we were one of the largest cities in the world bar London. We had, in Bendigo was the second richest stock exchange but to London.
We forget just the enormity of what the gold rush did here. The gold rush brought immigration, growth, the waves of prosperity that lead to the age of Marvelous Melbourne. The architectural legacy in the grand Victorian buildings like the GPO, the Town Hall, the Exhibition Building, even Flinders Street station, to say nothing of the magnificent architecture of surely the most impressive provincial cities still in Australia today.
But the legacy of the gold rush is something much bigger, much deeper than the outward display of architectural glory. I'll return to that later. What it is in Victoria's culture, indeed our collective psyche that we have retained from the age of gold is really worth thinking about that I will come back to.
There's another thing often associated with Melbourne and that's the term ‘wowsers’. At least, historically we are the Puritan, Puritan city of Australia. Many will trace this in church terms to the dominance of the Presbyterian Church. Scots particularly up there and the fact that Melbourne was particularly built on Presbyterian ethics and principles, different to Sydney and other, other capitals.
Well, we were known as Victorian by name and Victorian by nature. The term ‘wowser’ was coined in Melbourne. It resonates with meaning. One of the finest journalistic chroniclers of Victoria was Keith Dunstan. As you know, he wrote a column for decades in the Sun, later worked at the Age, wrote a whole book called Wowsers.
Well there were two basic interpretations of Wowsers. One is that of social reformer. Appalled at the cost in human suffering of the effects of commercially-driven vice, particularly alcohol and gambling. The other is that of kill-joys, spoil sports, puritanical, often hypocritical puritans who wanted to deprive ordinary people of their fun and force a gloomy, repressed straight-jacketed conformity on everyone. These people bring in the Nanny state.
To this end the Wowser is opposed, not only obvious vice like public drunkenness but simple, innocent pleasures theatre, dancing, social drinking, playing card games. The culture war between Wowsers and their critics was often played out in mutual denunciations. If the pulpit and the public meeting were the preferred platforms for the Wowsers, the popular press especially that highly-esteemed Melbourne Institution the Truth newspaper, gave plenty of space to their opponents.
The Truth was always an independent and respectable paper, and its views had nothing to do with the financial interests of John Wren and his ilk as some think, but it was anti-Wowser. The best known crusaders against vice were two brothers, both Methodist ministers, Reverend William Henry Judkins and Reverend George Alfred Judkins.
Legendary debates with John Wren, some people have likened my debates with Packer and the casino as just a reincarnation of this. The elder brother, William Henry, famously retorted to the Wowser epitaph, by means of a … he claimed Wowser actually stood for We Only Want Social Evils Remedied. Well this culture-war moved round and round various battlefields. Gambling, prostitution, drugs, the regulation of the liquor trade that was often the most keenly contested ground, not just here, but throughout the English-speaking worlds.
I have a little bit of this in my genes, right opposite my great-great grandfather's pub. Now on the site of the railway station. He came out in 1841, Patrick Costello. At 17 he could read and write before gold. Started pubs…pubs back then…got at first elected to Melbourne City Council. Why? Because Melbourne City Council handed out the licenses for pubs. Then, in those days, pubs were the voting booths when you had elections. So, with his network, he stood for the first Colonial Parliament and got elected and took his place. And it was only some months into taking his seat and someone blew the whistle on him that he had rigged his election through, and the word was ‘personating’. We'd call it impersonating. Personating people who are dead and now are voting.
Just a side-track, I remember Clive Holding when he was in Richmond. He was Protestant, had Catholics running the state Labour Party in Richmond. Dead were voting for Clyde back then, and Clyde said it's a safe labour seat, we don't need to do it. And the chair, Catholic chair of his election committee said that's what's wrong with you Protestants, you don't believe in the resurrection of the dead. They kept voting for a while, the dead.
Well my Catholic, all Costello’s were Catholic, it’s only an accident of sport that my branch is Protestant. Dad was baptised Catholic, wanted to play with the best cricket team in Ascotvale, which was Presbyterian, so we're a testament to the power of sport really.
Mum and Dad married in a Presbyterian church and we get sent to the Baptist church, anyway. Going back, Patrick was charged. Such was the publicity in Melbourne, because Patrick was so well known, they had to move his trial to Ballarat. This is 18 years before Redmond Barry tried Ned Kelly. Redmond Barry was the judge. He and Patrick lived opposite each other in Carlton here and hated each other. One Irish Protestant, Redmond Barry. The other, that very responsible for this. The other Irish Catholic. Patrick was condemned, was found guilty, and sentenced to 12 months prison. He only served three months because he threatened to sing, about all the others who had rigged their election. And so Parliament quietly let him out of prison. He resurfaces in 1891 after about 40 years gap as the Mayor of North Melbourne. And his first act as Mayor is to reinstate a drunken Irish employee, who's constantly drunk at North Melbourne Council. Patrick says, ‘No, it was just bad beer. He wasn't drunk’.
Well, here in my family is this whole Wowser, and prohibition, and liquor debate. And it was in liquor that, particularly, this debate was played out. This is the arena where women really started to become active. Women, still true today in indigenous communities, have a vote wherever women in remote communities outnumber men and they usually do, they always vote for a dry community.
Always, sick of the abuse and the violence and they, they've had enough.
Well, in the early 20th century, and it was at its heart here in Melbourne and Victoria, the leading campaign against full liquor reform was the Women's Christian Temperance Union—still active today, now its focus more on drug education and support for youth—and out of that, women organising against the evils of alcohol, organising politically saying we've got to get into power and we've got to have the vote, and we've got to…you start to see this Wowser debate and early feminism in some ways really flowing together.
When we place ourselves in the environment of our time and recognise that those seeking to control alcohol were not seen as conservative but as reformers, a bit like the situation with tobacco and even pokies today. You get a different picture around this term Wowser.
Many of the Women's Christian Temperance Union's key opponents were women. Women's employment opportunities and businesses, and business and professions, were constrained by the attitudes and the educational systems of the time. So other women said you should be in the home. You should be subject to your husbands. You shouldn't be making political trouble. We'd call it today horizontal gender persecution.
But the retail and hotel trade was another complication in the story Anna Blaney, what's the name, anyway, I got that name wrong, describes in her history of alcohol in Australia that women constituted a large percentage of publicans in the early 20th century. Women's Lounge, you can read the book. Because women in pubs, such as drunkenness and violence, so epidemic, were regarded as a civilising influence. So if you made the licensee a woman, you might actually, and it was really the first and one of the only areas of a profession and work that women could go into.
So you had a whole lot of women debates going on in a quite convoluted, complicated way. Well, the WCTU and their allies never succeeded in their aim of passing a referendum to prohibit alcohol in the state. But in the 1920s they saw a great reduction in licensed premises as well as the local option that continues to see Camberwell and Box Hill as dry areas even today. They had some political power and some impact.
These developments, somewhat similar to what happened in other states, but here was really the engine house for these movements. It was not surprising that Victoria and South Australia were the slowest to reverse the trend over the following decades. Both states retained six o'clock closing right up to the mid-1960s.
From 1960s on, Victoria started to change dramatically. And Victoria became a path breaker in liberalising the laws. It extended the sale of liquor but it decriminalised consensual sex in private, homosexual sex, legalising sex work, ending censorship, allowing for huge expansion of gambling. I'll never forget John Cain saying, ‘they called me a Wowser because I refused to have a casino license and pokies. But I did legalise brothels and the drinking laws’, so, and John Cain came and said really, really publicly ‘as soon as I was out of my desk within five minutes of being premier, those powerful, greedy, gambling interests were in the door. They knew they'd get nowhere with me’. He was right in my view.
So I think Wowserism was undoubtedly a double-edged sword with good and bad effects, but a distinctly Victorian character. Maybe exaggerated, but it's a part of our DNA.
I have sympathy with the view that a civilised community protects its members from the worst impacts of apparent freedom, even if prohibition is usually a mistake.
It's interesting that Sir Henry Bolte—and I think we often mistake him as sort of like a jovial Sir Joh Bjelke Peterson our generation and you remember the hanging or Ronald Rhine—but in 1955 when he got elected, Bolte was a liberal in a quite progressive sense. I'm going to clear the slums. I'm going to put up high rising, which were actually regarded as much more humane at that time. A lot of problems now. Bolte, you know, introduced the first mandatory seatbelts anywhere in the world. The nanny state. Kennet introduced the first fences around swimming pools to protect young people drowning. When you hear liberals saying red tape, nanny state, libertarian views. Victorian liberalism has actually always been quite different and I'll, I'll get to that.
But Victoria, though dull and conformist, had a reformist past. Less to do with I think, more to do with a contentedness of a provincial and suburban culture. May have looked dull in the 1950s, but the other side of the coin. Have a look at the Bohemian Melbourne Exhibition currently on in this library. There were other things also that were pushing the dullness. Conformist Victoria is the place that's produced the legion of free thinkers, descenters, bohemians. Norman Lindsay, Nick Cave, Jermaine Greer, Barry Humphries, the list goes on.
Well, the conservative jewel in the liberal crown particularly. Where does Victoria sit in Australian politics?
During the post-war years, Victoria was often referred to as the jewel in the liberal crown. The Victorian Menzies reigned in Canberra and from the 50s to the 80s liberals reigned unchallenged in Spring Street as well, not even having to form a coalition with the Country Party.
The Melbourne Establishment for Conservative Power, even a superior attitude of being born to rule, a born-to-rule elite was identified with Melbourne. On several occasions, when federal Labour looked like it might win 1954, 1961, again in 1969, Victoria stayed solid and kept the Liberals nationally in power.
Since the 1980s, the tide seems to have reversed. Victoria has become anything but a happy hunting-ground for the conservative side of politics. Bob Hawke's victory in 1983, Victoria proved more pro-Labour at that federal election than the national average. With the major exception of a 1990 federal election, when the electorate punished federal Labour for the sins of their state colleagues, Joan Kirner, you all remember that period, this has held true in Victoria. Even in the meltdown circumstances of 2013, when Rudd, a second time as PM, held an election, Labour held the majority of federal seats here in Victoria.
As you know, Victorians seem especially resistant to the charms of Tony Abbott and his particular brand of masculine conservatism. And I don't think that it's just because he's from Sydney. On a range of issues over a long period from Republicanism to refugees, climate change to Australian aid—devastatingly cut by this government. A billion dollars gone. It's going to cost lives as surely as lives when you send people to war—Victoria seems consistently, to be to the left of the rest of the country. It's the activist area, when it comes to Mabo, WIK, fighting for land rights. The Victorian bar, unlike the Sydney bar, Queensland bar, has been the one at the forefront of these great indigenous battles in huge numbers with pro-bono cases. There's something quite distinctive about this reformer strand here.
So, how has a state once noted as the liberal jewel. How has it become Australia's dissident state of the left? Has Victoria changed? Or has perhaps Victoria remained fairly constant while the national benchmark has shifted radically to the right? I suspect a bit of both. But definitely a bit of the latter, because Victoria has a political tradition that goes back more than a century of chasing the radical centre. The progressive but moderate strand of political thinking.
The liberal in a conservative party. This, I think this strain is still very strongly in the culture in the water and our DNA. The liberal protectionism of Alfred Deakin, put at the centre of Australian political life in the years after federation, was a very Victorian way of thinking. Deakin a most remarkable prime minister and leader. A spiritualist, a novelist, an academic, a very deep thinker. That sense of Melbourne tackling existential issues.
He started as a free trade at Deakin. But as the young man, he came into the orbit of one of the most influential Victorians of all time, David Syme.
In the late 19th Century, David Syme was proprietor of The Age, a forward-thinking paper compared to The Argus. And his influence extended well beyond what we'd normally associate with even a powerful media force. Syme was not a dilettante when it came to the pursuit of politics. Like Deakin after him, Syme had written extensively on political philosophies. His works were widely read in Europe. They were translated into other languages such as German.
Syme developed a strong view, the civilised community could be created by a system of government that combined support for private enterprise and competition locally, with an active effort to maintain protection against external competition and threats, and that private enterprise would give back and build public spaces, civic spaces, a public culture.
Well, policies and even philosophies come in and out of fashion. What I think’s enduring about Syme's approach, which Deakin successfully translated into action as PM, and a couple of times in Australia, is its characteristic of compromise. Complementarity. Lateral thinking. Civic culture. Public good. It's the inventiveness of finding creative solutions to problems and not falling into the trap of binary thinking. The view that turns everything into black and white categories and turns politics into a battle for corners, for brand identification. Aren't we all sick of that?
I think the tone, the tone that Syme and Deakin set has formed deep roots in the Victorian political culture. As a community, I'm generalising, we're not especially attracted to hard ideological certainty. The so-called conservative side of politics enjoyed decades of success in Victoria, largely because they were not especially conservative.
Politicians like Deakin were essentially radical and progressive. They had the imagination to think of a society better than anything known up to until their time, while also firmly grounded in liberal thinking that recognised the value of enterprise, the role of individuals in pursuing their own happiness and destiny and having the rights to pursue that.
By liberal, I'm sort of meaning as a code word, a vision of the future that lures you and you change the present, you're dissatisfied with the present to move to that future.
Conservative usually is happy with the future, you don't meddle with it. Its unintended consequences, you don't, you leave it! If you're happy with Australia, or the government in Victoria, conservative governments will be fine in a true conservative sense. Now, mind the shop. They actually won't want to change much. That's generalising, a conservative default setting. Well that's not Victorian liberalism starting with Deakin.
Menzies may have been personally conservative by temperament, and we know his love of the Crown and all things British, but his political instincts and his pragmatism took him to the centre ground of Australian politics. The Liberal Party wasn't going to be a party for the idle rich or the seething masses of the poor. It was the forgotten people, those in the middle, who valued their culture, their community, their hard work and businesses.
In Menzies' government, he didn't undo the many reforms and innovations that Labour Prime Ministers Curtin and Chifley had introduced as the foundation for post-war reconstruction of Australia.
If you follow your American politics, you'll know that the great hatred of the Republican Party, particularly the Tea Party, is really Franklin Roosevelt. It's not those who've come since. That reconstruction in America of Roosevelt. State intervention, particularly in the Depression, and Roosevelt's Bill of Rights that he didn't get through, which was a right to a house and a job and a right to food on the table, that is socialism, communism, and Democrats in so far as they espouse those views, and because of the legacy in America, the cost now of government programs and the debt. See Republicans, they're hating what Roosevelt did.
Menzies did not undo those reforms. He was a liberal in that sense. If he was a true conservative he would have had some of those responses. I think it's also true of a long-running state governments, Sir Bolte, Dick Hamer, pragmatic and progressive and reformist.
I’ve mentioned Bolte's historical image with the last person who suffered capital punishment. Isn't that alive in our thinking as we pray for the Bali two at the moment. And yet he wasn't a street fighter of the style of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He was pragmatic. He expanded housing education and the arts. And I've talked about the high rise estates seen as progressive then. So yep, Bolte's style seems conservative, but no more than you might expect for someone born in 1908.
The years that followed under Hamer, the government continued to evolve and implement an array of modernising reforms. And we know of Dick Hamer's passion for the environment and parks and the arts and reforms that we are living with today.
So, my case really is the subsequent Labour of the government, led by John Cain, built on these foundations renewed the tone and direction that Hamer set before his government grew tired. But there's continuity. There's no change. This still is a liberal tradition.
For me, the underlying fact of Victoria's apparent transition from conservative jewel to ratbag central is that the paradigm of Australian politics has shifted while Victorian's have proved sceptical and resistant to that lurch to the right. That more conservative strain. Rolling back a carbon tax and a mining tax and undoing what’s gone before. I don't sense revolution in the air in Victoria, but I feel the steady swell of moderation, progress, pragmatism, the sensible centre, a common ground, a common sense approach to the common-ground seeking modest improvement open to progressive ideas. Debating them, thinking about them in our darkened cafes with bad weather outside. Believing that as we debate them, there's a sane, humane, more civilised world that is possible.
Well, I think there's something else about politics in Victoria that stands out for me. Australian politics operates within a fairly small and familiar space most of the time. Not only are the major parties traditionally not all that far apart, although with a lot brand distinction going on. Not only is Australia a fairly small, exceptionally homogeneous nation, there's a peculiar familiarity and egalitarianism that you get in Australia. Not many countries where prime ministers and other leaders are routinely called by their first names. We just call them Tony and Julia and Malcolm and Joe and Barnaby.
And I remember this moment, since she's in the news, I was catching the last flight out of Adelaide and walking toward me, the opposite way, was this Amazonian striking woman. And I literally was transfixed. I couldn't take my eyes off her as she was approaching. As we got close, I heard the voice of the person walking next to her, ‘Oh g’day Tim, how're you going?’ I looked, and it was our Prime Minister. I said, ‘Oh, g’day Tony’. And my eyes just went back to this woman. It was like, wow. Now I thought later, well, that's our Prime Minister and I just said ‘G’day Tony’ and, you know, it's a bit unusual. It's not Mr President. It's not Mr Prime Minister.
Well, state politics have an intimacy that's different to national and international stages. The kind of leaders we've seen in Victorian politics, I think, tell us something significant about our state's cultures.
Our leaders generally aren't remote figures, they're not celebrities, they're more like people we're familiar with even if we don't see them all the time. They're like old school friends, neighbours, distant-relatives. In my lifetime, Jeff Kennett aside, he's the exception, Victorians have generally preferred leaders who are reliable, likable, sober, modest in their style.
Think of Bracks and Brumby and Dan Andrews and Denis Napthine a vet. We don't look for wild-eyed idealists and visionaries, but we expect them to be personable, decent. We're intolerant of actual dishonesty or corruption. We're intolerant of arrogance in them. I think if we're advertising on seek.com for a premier, most Victorians would say modesty, decency, and earnestness as essential qualifications, and especially optimism. We rate competence as highly desirable, but we're values driven.
Now I'm probably going over my time. What time do I need to finish? Pretty soon? 5. Ok.
Look, I was going to take a little time to talk about philanthropy. The reason most of the biggest charities have their head offices, 70% here in Melbourne, and international-aid agencies, not just World Vision, which is the biggest, but Oxfam, and Save, and Plan, and Red Cross. One of the reasons is the spirit of optimism observable, even before the Gold Rush, took off in 1851. And with that gold, we said let's not just waste in a spendthrift way the boom, which really is the debate we're having nationally.
Under John Howard and a certain sibling of mine, there was, there boom and there was huge spend, built-in tax cuts that now, once you've given them to people, we know impossible to take back and how do we actually budget, balance this now? But, for Victorians we actually poured so much of that money into great public buildings.
Governor Latrobe, lovely story, did I mention it? I'm feeling confused. He, he was naïve. He'd written, he never governed anything, governor of trade when he arrived. He was wet behind the ears. He had written a paper on emancipation of slavery, a principled man. And when he was here, it was just Port Philip District, Governor Bourke of New South Wales was in charge. He wanted to, he needed a plot of land for Government House.
Back then, when the Jolimont area came up for sale, prime land, Melbourne's rich, in a small community, only about 5000, colluded. They said, this Governor needs to buy this. We shan't force up the price. We won't bid. We’ll run dumb and dead. Government, Governor Latrobe goes himself, and staggered at his brilliance that he gets all of Jolimont land for 20 pound, for government house. Governor Bourke is furious because he wants more in the treasury. Here even before gold rush, there's sort of civic culture. You know, the governor, he might be innocent and a bit of a fool, but we'll make him look successful. We'll actually do the right thing.
Well, he chose Governor La Trobe Ferdinand von Mueller as the site botanist, extraordinary botanic gardens, laid the foundation for scientific understanding of all Australian flora.
So many who are part of the elite of Victorian had a strong spirit of optimism. It's a powerful mark. As I said to my audience in Perth, you need to discover the spirit of optimism. You need to bottle it. You need to say the whole purpose of making money is actually—cause you didn't bring it when you came here, you're not taking it with you—is actually to build something here that lasts. That future generations are proud of. And don't we have that?
We have it in the extraordinary buildings. The heroes, like Francis Almond, who founded RMIT just down the road, the working man's college. He'd seen technical colleges in Germany on a trip in the 1880s, put up his own money, and 130 years on thousands of world-trained professionals in an institution that adds hundreds of millions of dollars to the state economy.
We see it in the Felton Bequest, seemingly modest, that allowed the National Gallery to acquire works whose nominal value was estimated a few years ago at $2.4 billion. Giving it away, giving back. It's the American tradition in part. You know, Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist, philanthropist said, ‘the man who dies rich dies disgraced’.
I remember trying to bring this up when Kerry Packer died, who didn't leave. Oh, any trust, any foundation, and I tried to put it gently and I still got into terrible trouble. I was annoyed that John Howard, Prime Minister, and Alan Jones had eulogised him as phenomenally generous. Well, he gave a couple of large gifts to Micah ambulances and that. But actually, he was phenomenally mean. And you wouldn't get away with that in America. You wouldn't have gotten away with that in Victoria to actually not have left foundations and trusts and give back. You wouldn't get away with it.
He was a phenomenally successful businessman, but wrong to eulogise him as phenomenally generous. We know at World Vision, with the nearly million names on our database. Thankyou to any of you who donate or sponsor a child. We've ranked them by post code. Overwhelmingly, the greatest number of gifts come from the poorest post codes. It's really interesting. People who know struggle and what's the struggle of African mum trying to get clean water for her children and education.
Well the rich, our mega-rich, in Australia we often let off. But to be fair, in Melbourne, with the boom and we had the bust in the 1890s, there were many who actually put back in. They were optimistic about the future. But it's not just that optimism, you know, MacRobertson the Chocolate King. You know, Fred Fog and Cherry White. Robertson, who contributed to innumerable works in the public interest, schools, bridges, Mawson's Antarctic Expedition. He persuaded the Victorian government. It should forgo income from death duties in respect of certain charitable legacies. That was over 60 years before those duties were abolished anywhere else in Australia.
To be really honest, Victoria is the home of charity thanks to Matt Robinson. That gave a direct incentive for the rich avoiding death duties, to actually set up foundations and legacies, before death duties were eventually abolished all around Australia.
That's one of the reasons gold, death duties, the other reason, to be honest, is the Jewish community in Melbourne. The extraordinary generosity and commitment, and large Jewish community here for why so many philanthropic foundations, over 70%, here in Melbourne.
Look I could talk about human capital, but time has gone. Although, I do think, since I'm an Essendon fan, I want to mention Michael Long. I don't know if my teams going to be able to put a team on the park this year. We just have the best pharmacist in all of Melbourne
But when you think of football, AFL, Nicky Winmar lifts his jumper in front of a led crowd that was spitting on him and points at the colour of his skin. I'm proud, I'm black.
Michael Long, a footballer, breaks the golden rule, never happened in sport. The rule in sport is what happens on the field stays on the field. So, when players who have been assaulted go to the tribunal to give evidence, they can barely remember their own names, let alone if they were playing, let alone if somebody hit them. You just don't rat on what happened on the field.
Michael Long breaks the code of silence, a muter, he says of Damian Monkhurst, he called me a black bastard. Damian Monkhorst is quite shocked, cause he said, ‘I know I'm a good bloke. I know I'm not racist. I know. All my life, I've called aboriginals black bastards, but It's not racism cause that's just what we call them’. And you watch Melbourne, thanks to Michael Long's courage of saying ‘its racism when you denigrate me because of the colour of my skin. You've never asked how I feel about that’. And literally, you watch Melbourne football crowds counsel with Monkhorst until the penny drops. Ah that's what racism is. There’s this moment.
AFL football, his long walk to Canberra and indigenous reconciliation, this human capital and it can go on and on about, Melbourne is really quite extraordinary.
I want to finish by saying, this civic culture I've been alluding to I think is really strong. The American historian, Louis Hartz, his book The Founding of New Societies has an interesting idea. He says, ‘New societies embodied the cultural spirit of the founding society, during the period when their institutions were being formed. America's individualism owes much to the unlimited free market and liberalism of 18th century, England’.
Think John Stuart Mill, and think Liberty. All those phrases, still cries out in America. Latin America, extermination by land owners, and a clerical elite, derives from the ways of feudal Spain when their institutions were being formed.
Hartz says the defining Australian characteristic is utilitarianism. This was dominant in England of the early 19th century. Following this line, I see a lot in Victoria that derives from the middle of the 19th century rather than the early period under Victoria, Queen Victoria and Albert, the rise of technology, expansion of empire. Britain entered its age of improvement. The Victorians believed, perhaps naively, in modern things, railways, parliamentary reform, modern medicine, universal education, a reform act in 1832, in England.
Now, I'm not endorsing imperialism, or colonialism, or arguing for a retro-fit of Australian institutions. It sounds more radical than Tony Abbott's knighthoods. But with all their faults, the Victorians had a pervasive sense of uplift. Belief in the future. Getting kids out of coal mines and child labour. Wilberforce and his group, dominant by 1835. Dominant and that's why New Zealand had a treaty with Mary's because Wilberforce's group were now dominant in the House of Commons. We of course had no treaty.
Well that uplift, I think, explains our state. I think we can look at our Victoria, the state, not the Queen, and see now the DNA, optimism, enduring faith, reform, that things can be better.
I told my listeners in Perth, if you want to make the benefits of last for a century or more, look for the real gold, not the fool's gold. The real gold, civic culture. That will keep your community striving for improvement long after the rocks of gold have run out.
So for us, this is our history, and why I think Melbourne and Victoria are special.
It's an honour to be asked by the Murray-Smith family, to follow many distinguished speakers, in remembering the life of Stephen Murray-Smith, as we do this evening.
It strikes me that he and his wife Lita lived a very Melbourne life, even allowing for the happy escapes to Aerith and Bass Strait and the family base being at Mt Eliza.
The Murray-Smiths drank deep from the pleasures of urban life and in turn, because of their smarts and their style, they undeniably boosted the pulse rate of Melbourne in the post-war years.
They must have been grand days.
For a young returned serviceman, one of patrician bearing but egalitarian temperament, to engage with some very different Australians. The newly arrived Jewish émigrés, among them Stephen's future wife Anita, they were all there on the campus of the University of Melbourne. Alive to the possibilities of life, intellectually precocious, challenging themselves and everyone else, and above all intensely political.
Stephen's initial chosen path would be the god that failed. He was an early apostate. Good for him. But he paid a price in being shunned by some who would take decades to arrive at a similar position. No doubt it left its mark, but Stephen would go on to become, in Joanna's memorable phrase, ‘A missionary for the imagination’.
A historian, a literary editor, a great promoter of the talent of others through his editorship of Overland and always a teacher.
Did Stephen, I wonder, consciously think of himself as an educator? He certainly appears to have understood that we learn best from those we love.
Joanna's recollections are of a dad who put her to bed each night by reading the stories of Henry Lawson. Years later, in pursuing her own brilliant career, she realised that among other things, she'd absorbed important detail about structure and pace. Then there was the careful cultivation of an artistic sensibility. Joanna also recalls that the necessary accompaniment for trip, for a trip to the opera, the ballet, or the theatre, was a mini-tutorial by Stephen or Nita on the life of Mozart or some foundational points about the plays of Beckett or Osborne. They were quite consciously helping shape Joanna's aesthetic.
Australian contemporary drama, I think, can be grateful that the Murray-Smiths never favoured the fuzzy and increasingly forlorn idea that Joanna just might pick it up as she went along. Which brings me to my theme tonight, and if Stephen's ghostly presence joins us this evening, I wouldn't be surprised. I suspect he would have robust ideas on the subject of modern education.
Now, as Jill said, I've been working on a book that I've titled Class Act. I've been doing that work for about, really about the last two years.
I had the opportunity, first of all as a federal MP, to spend a lot of time in schools in the Northwest of Sydney, and it was really one of the highlights of the job. I also had a key role to play in shaping public policy on early childhood. And it is gratifying to see that changes that were put in place in 2008, the Early Years Learning Framework, which I spent a lot of time on, and the National Quality Standards, that they are still standing today and indeed have been endorsed by a group as hard-headed and as budget conscious as the Productivity Commission.
In writing Class Act, I had a couple of goals in mind. Primarily, a practical one. I wanted to document the specific approaches that schools are taking to transform themselves. To lift the academic achievement of all students and where teachers follow the mantra of Professor John Hattie, ‘Know thy impact’.
The elaborate song and dance act that teachers might put on in front of their students really counts for naught if they are unaware of what it is that students are learning. So the critical questions to be asked in the classroom, and in effective schools this is what's happening, the critical questions are around student growth and challenge. What's been absorbed? Can you explain this concept to others? How do you get to the next phase of learning? How to go deeper, rather than just do more of the same?
Now, you might have noticed that a few of these questions form part of the public education debate. As in so many areas of public policy, we are stuck in pretty useless binary debates. Whole language versus phonics, public versus private, autonomy versus command and control, and so on. These are all secondary issues. What matters is what's working. How we can replicate success across what is now a very fragmented sector and how we get a system-wide lift.
We need that lift because there really are some red lights flashing. The international data, the PEARLS and PISA tests show that we have a wide gap between our top performers and our lowest achievers, a gap that many of the top-performing countries manage to bridge. Well, actually, they don't allow that gap to emerge, because they intervene early.
Equally worrying, and quite puzzling to many, is the fact that since the start of the century our best students are trending down. Now, there's another statistic that I find the most depressing of all. In surveys conducted among Australia's primary school children, a worrying 45% say they only read if they have to.
You think about that. The keys to the kingdom, the world of intellectual discovery that meant so much to the Stephen Smiths, that is closed to these children because most only begrudgingly pick up a book.
It's why one of the Class Act stories that I love concerns Garran Public School in the ACT, because they did something quite revolutionary. There are no basic readers. There's no basic or standard anything at that school. They teach children to read, wait for it, by putting the best and most emotionally engaging literature in front of them. As a result, Garran is able to get more of its students into the top achievement bands than most others in the country. And at Garran, 80% of students say they read for the love of it. At Garran they also have a policy of only employing teachers who understand functional grammar.
I know you're gasping.
A real class act in education would be if we could have national figures that more closely resembled that of Garran. Now, in order to do that we need to get some fundamentals right.
Only this week, a friend of mine, a highly qualified math teacher, she quit a regional Victorian high school where she's been teaching, mainly because the school has such a lackadaisical attitude towards something as basic as attendance. Year 10 attendance levels can be as low as 60%. Now, this is discussed in a kind of relaxed way in the classroom, ‘Oh, sorry’ in the staff room, but there's no strategy in place to deal with it. To state the obvious, if the kids aren't there, you can't teach them.
There are things you can do to ensure that children attend regularly and they are in place in some of the poorest areas in the country.
Now, fortunately, my friend has not been lost to teaching. She's relocated to another very low SES school here in the city, and it's a place that actually puts a premium on attendance, on achievement, and growth in student and professional practice. But that regional high school that she's quit, more than likely, they've dragged in the PE teacher who's now attempting to teach maths.
Now, I want to stress that I have not come up in my book with a unique, I'm sorry, a piece of unique scholarship, but I have applied my narrative skills to the mountain of reports, the mountain of documentation that's been compiled over the years, all looking at what works and how we can apply those lessons.
You won't be surprised to hear that what I found is that it's a complex story. You can get some quick wins, but lifting academic performance and sustaining that performance is a whole lot more intricate than just getting a bit of a kick in NAPLAN.
Now my starting point is to celebrate success. To acknowledge the quite exceptional efforts that are happening right here in our major cities and in schools where children in some cases are bringing themselves up. Either that or they come from families where there is very little social capital and certainly not much geographic mobility.
The most shameful part of our education story as many of you would know is the extreme social segregation now of our schools and for poor children that means all sorts of things. They don't travel past the State Library every day. They don't get to see the Italian Masters at the NGV. More often than not, you are told of these schools that a lot of suburban kids don't even come to the city. That physical isolation has an effect on how you view the world and how ambitious you're likely to be.
I was at St. Alban's School, St. Alban's Secondary College a few months ago, and through one of their partnerships they had organised a trip to the city for the Year 7 children. And I was told one little boy looked out at the CBD towers as they drove across the West Gate Bridge and said, ‘Sir, is that New York?’ I hope his teacher said, ‘No son, New York has a better transport system’.
So what does a successful school look like? Well with the exception of one school I've written, and that's Garin, I've written five case studies of what we can call turnaround schools. Now these are places where, before major, whole school improvement took place, nothing was going on in the academic department. Children were being looked after. A lot of pastoral care. Teachers felt sorry for these children. They did their best, but not much else.
I'll mention a couple of things that are common to all these schools. Leadership is absolutely critical. Leadership that sets the bar high, sets a plan, finds the resources to back that plan, and follows through with effective implementation with the whole team. And we've got a wonderful asset here in Melbourne, we've got the Bastow Learning Institute in North Melbourne, which is doing really some fine work in this regard.
Schools, as I say, are complex places and the skills required to lead can be learned. The starting point is to recognise that getting promoted to the position of Principal is the first point. That doesn't necessarily equate to you automatically having the leadership skills.
In all the cases that I have documented, you have leaders who push and push. They push themselves, they push their teaching staff, and they push the system. They test the limits of their authority all the time. Not because of some power trip, but because they want to address significant educational deficits.
Now this kind of leadership does mean unsettling the status quo.
When Mark McConvel took over the very troubled Toronto High School on the New South Wales Central Coast, he thought he would take about 12 months to take a good look around before he started his change program. Well that idea went out the window in the first week, just after he called for a look at the learning plans for all subject areas and at the curriculum documents, pretty standard. Well, there was almost a riot among staff, and when McConvel got to the bottom of it and got all his staff behind a closed door he found out just how poorly organised the school was. In some Year 12 subjects, there was no curriculum plan. What was worse, some teachers didn't even seem too embarrassed about this. And by the way, I'm talking about the period of seven or eight years ago, not 20 years ago. Toronto had a dismal academic record but that has changed, and I say in about seven or eight years, now around 40% of those students from Toronto go on to university, about another 30% go on to TAFE.
To start with something even more basic, that of the personal safety of staff and students. I spent time over in Perth. A wonderful school, Roseworth Primary, and a better model of integrated schooling. It's a bit like a Scandinavian model, where the health, the social and the educational needs of children and parents are met. They really have brought it all together. But again, very, very different about a decade ago.
When Geoff Metcalf started there as Principal, no teaching was possible because the place was so violent. Teachers just hunkered down. Either that or they were too afraid to even get out of their cars in the morning. Because standard practice was that local families—my, my, editor kept questioning me when I had this in my initial draft. She said, ‘Are you serious? Local families who are actually coming into the school during the day. Certainly at lunch time and continuing their inter-family feuds in front of children?’—Well, that was tolerated. It wasn't tolerated for long by Geoff Metcalf, who literally put his own safety at risk, at first by staring down the worst of the offenders and then by setting new rules and enforcing them.
Now a huge help, and this is where the resourcing matters, a huge help was a complete redesign of the school with supervised entrances and exits. Roseworth now picks up Safe School awards, but it's taken a lot of years, some critical partnerships, because no schools transform themselves without critical partners, and very purposeful leadership.
In the case of Metcalf, he was driven by a very basic idea. The children deserve a slice of normality. A safe environment where they can be taught and where performance can be lifted.
Now that kind of leadership is always allied to a particular ambition. All of the effective principals I've interviewed have big ambitions for their schools. They all repeat that much quoted line that by trying to overcome the soft bigotry of low expectations, time and time again they still come up against the view in poor schools that ‘well, these kids can't cope with much’.
Maria Karvouni, in this town, heard all of that when she took on the principalship At Charles La Trobe. When she looked at an analysis of how students spent their time, and again, this was only five years ago. When she looked at this analysis for how students spent their time, she found that far more time was spent in PE than in English. Yet most of the students had extremely poor vocabularies and exceptionally poor writing skills. When she, when she queried these priorities she was told, ‘well, this is what suits the kids. It's where they're happy’. It didn't suit Maria Karvouni. She changed the timetable, put a major emphasis on literacy at all levels and got rid of the dumbed-down electives, junked the lot of them. This is another theme that comes through.
She's interested in challenging her students, not in feeling sorry for them. A migrant herself, she remembers the public schools of her day where she was pushed to do better, and that's what she's been doing at Charles La Trobe. You visit today and they'll take you to a philosophy class for Year 9 students where they practice Socratic dialogue. Attendance is up, behaviour is not the problem it was, and the school is no longer bypassed by parents because of the poor reputation of the school.
So leadership, ambition and that brings me to the third element, rich content. Give the kids the good stuff, where else are they going to get it?
In schools that are stretching their students. In secondary schools they're ensuring a broad range of subject offerings and in primary schools they're getting rid of the idea that you give your poorest performers the low calibre readers with the baby vocabularies. Turnaround schools are doing the reverse.
We know that a child's vocabulary is one of the best predictors of success at school. So smart schools are ensuring that young children are exposed to rich literature.
I've interviewed—it's one of my favourite chapters—I've interviewed a University of Canberra academic by the name of Misty Adoniou. Wonderful name, isn't it? I recommend her very lively, and in some cases quite iconoclastic pieces, in the conversation, if you, if you look through the conversation regularly.
Misty is prepared to say out loud what many won't. That too many of our children are falling through the cracks because teachers don't have the tools to help them to develop sophisticated language. So she teaches pre-service teachers functional grammar. And she doesn't do it the old way, you know the noun, verb, predicate. She hit on something again, quite radical, she takes teachers through the wonders of the English language by getting them to read and reflect on great children's literature. Who would've thought it?
One of her favourites is the book by Margaret Wild, Fox, if there are any teachers here. And she takes students through, you know, Margaret Wild’s language line-by-line, talking about the adverbial phrases, why writers use language in the way they do.
She also runs, she's actually run off her feet doing this, she runs seminars across the ACT and increasingly across the country, and she calls this 10 things that every teacher needs to know about the English language. She goes through simple compound, complex sentences, you know, how many tenses in English, what's ellipses, you know. By morning tea, the kind of the, the grammar if you like, what we say the grammar bores, the people who think they know everything, are sounding, you know, a little bit shaky.
The point is not to be a grammar fundamentalist but to give children, guess what, an important framework. And it's poor children who don't get to hear rich language and they surely deserve the same repertoire of language as children from affluent homes.
The final feature I'll mention from the schools I see as successful is that they have a lot of respect for the people at the heart of the system, the students. Now, I know everyone says this, you know, it's about the students. But you have to see a school that takes seriously the idea of student voice, before you appreciate this point. And I mentioned St. Albans again, here in Melbourne. It used to be one of the schools I mentioned; a lot of fluffy care but lousy results.
And I have to say that people who, you know, who've engineered the change say this about themselves, which is very interesting.
We know that it turns out that it was St Albans students who actually thought that they were getting a pretty mediocre education. We know this because St Albans did a very bold thing and actually asked the entire student body what they thought of the place. This is a very big school about thousand students, years 7 to 12, and they conducted forums right across the student cohort. The students took the exercise very seriously. It turned out they were acutely conscious of the fact that they were at a low-performing school. They mentioned the fact that many teachers turned up late for class with no organised learning plan, that they rarely provided feedback, and more than not set homework that was never marked.
Now, in the hands of someone else this might have caused a bit of an industrial relations meltdown, when the feedback went back to the staff. But with Carrie Dosley as Principal, someone who had been at that school for a very long time, she managed the very difficult conversations with the faculty about the response of students.
Kerry then took a second step. She went back to the students and she asked them what they thought a high-expectations environment would look like. Back came the answers. The students wanted order, structure, clear guidelines and teaching of the curriculum. They didn't want to go into exams and be surprised by what they encountered. Above all, they ordered specific feedback and feedback about how to get to the next stage, you know, how to keep on learning. This is all the stuff that is invisible learning. The product of Professor John Hattie's immense research over 20 or 30 years.
Well, needless to say, you cannot conduct an exercise like that and not act on it. So, of all the lower SES schools I've looked at St. Albans really has achieved the most consistent uplift in results, because they have acted on this. And I invite you to read the chapter. It's most interesting, I think, in the precision and the detail that the school has applied, but it has not happened in five minutes. It's really been a 20 year process at that school, marked again by intelligent leadership, a high-level of collegiality and significant ambition. The result is a huge pride in what's been achieved and a culture of consistent improvement.
So lead, be ambitious, challenge students and above all listen to them.
I could mention many other things, and I've heard some exceptional stories over the last couple of years, but I'll just go to the end point. As I go around schools, I find myself thinking a lot about the world that young people are being tipped out into. Excuse me. For those of you, I think with teenage children or young adult children or grandchildren, it is a compelling question. Degrees have never been more expensive and about to become more so. Apart from the professions, and even there we are going to see a lot of disruption, but whether it's a straight bachelor degree, a combined degree or a masters, graduates are finding the labour market a very difficult place to negotiate.
Many are in jobs that have nothing to do with their area of expertise. So the post-GFC world is a very different beast. We're seeing plenty of creative destruction, because of massive changes in technology. More and more, the expectation being that young people are required to create their own work. How many times have we heard this? That's fine for the entrepreneurial types, but what about the others?
We've always had a mixed record on innovation in this country, and I don't see much evidence that in schools we’re any more savvy about nurturing a future generation of creators and inventors. It's why there is huge interest in what Sir Ken Robinson talks about in his TED Talk lectures on education; the importance of building and encouraging the creative potential of our young people. He claims to have had something like 20 million hits on his TED Talk. The one, I think its entitled How Schools Kill Creativity. And as he says, the fact that so many people have downloaded and looked at this video suggests that a lot of people feel, you know, badly done by in terms of their education.
At the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, where I've spent a good deal of time over the last two years, Professor Patrick Griffin has had nearly 20,000 students across the globe sign up to his online moot course on 21st century skills and those skills that emphasise collaboration and creative problem solving.
And you might say, what's new about this? I bet Stephen Murray-Smith did that a bit of that in his time. Certainly, many of the big breakthroughs in science and elsewhere have come from an ability to work and share data and to systematically work through problems. But this is now an issue not just for scientists in the labs, but an issue for the wider workplace. As Pat Griffin says, some of the big global corporates, the Intel’s, the Microsoft's, they've backed the 21st century schools project, because they want to hire people who can work out what the problem is in the first place. And they have significant skill shortages because too few individuals can effectively work like this.
It’s why I think we might see a revival in the study of the humanities. As long as they are challenging courses, they can help extend the ability of young people to synthesise their arguments and to understand the power of language and concepts. Humanities studies teach people how to play with possibilities and how to be comfortable with ambiguity. And if you look at some of the inertia in either I think our commercial arenas or in this country or in government, boy do we need people who can imagine alternative ways of solving problems.
One of the more interesting things I've read on the subject has come from a column written by Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist. And it was, it was done about six months ago. It's one that gets passed around a lot. What Friedman did, he interviewed the Vice President of People Operations, don't you like that, for Google, who made some very interesting points. He said, ‘For every job, the number one thing we look for is general cognitive ability and that's not IQ, its learning ability. The ability to process on the fly and we assess that using structured behavioural interviews that we validate to make sure that they're predictive. Ongoing learning ability’. Very, very interesting. And, and Friedman concludes that column by saying, ‘Beware’, this is his message to young people, ‘Beware, your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about and pays off on what you can do with what you know.’ I think they might be right.
So to conclude, I'm hoping that my little work Class Act is something of a catalyst for some different discussions about what success looks like, about how we can create a richer set of opportunities for all of our young people, and particularly, about how we can apply a more consistent policy approach to one of our most compelling national issues.