- Tim Costello on our patch – is Victoria different?
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.
'in Melbourne, people are much more open to big ideas and discussion'
– Tim Costello
About this video
Staid and conservative or social laboratory? Birthplace of the wowsers or bohemian enclave? Sports mad or culture vultures?
In this lively discussion, former Victorian of the Year and CEO of World Vision, Tim Costello unpacks Victoria’s past, considers some of its extraordinary characters and offers a frank exploration of our present.
This event was part of the Library's Big ideas under the dome lecture series, bringing to Melbourne great minds in the arts, culture, social justice and sciences to discuss, debate and reflect on the big ideas and issues of our time.
Tim Costello AO is the CEO of World Vision Australia and a former Victorian of the Year. He is one of Australia’s leading voices on social justice issues, having spearheaded public debates on gambling, urban poverty, homelessness, reconciliation and substance abuse.