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Liverpool life




The colonial political parties of the labour movement which preceded the Australian Labor Party date from 1891.  The first Labour MPs were elected that year to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (aka “the Bear Pit”), winning 35 of 141 seats.  The first Labour government anywhere in the world was in Queensland in 1899, where the administration of Anderson Dawson held office for 7 days.   Federally, the first Labour Government was in 1904, under Chris Watson, a minority government that lasted just 4 months.  The party adopted the US spelling of “Labor” in 1912, in admiration of the US labor movement.

An American journalist and historian of Australia, C. Hartley Grattan (1902-1980), once wrote this about the Party (cited in Button 2012, page 145 large print edition):

It has struggled with every handicap to which political parties are heir.  It has been burdened with careerists, turncoats, hypocrites, outright scoundrels, stuffy functionaries devoid of sense and imagination, bellowing enemies of critical intelligence, irritatingly self-righteous clowns bent on enforcing suburban points of view, pussy-footers, demagogues, stooges for hostile outside groups and interests, aged and decaying hacks and ordinary blatherskites.  Every political party falls heir to these.  But it has outlived them all and still stands for something:  it stands for a social democratic Australia.”


James Button [2012]: Speechless:  A Year in my Father’s Business.  Melbourne, Australia:  Melbourne University Press.

POSTSCRIPT (2013-03-30):  And here is a perceptive analysis of the current situation of the ALP by Guy Rundle, writing for Crikey magazine (HT).    I had not previously viewed the ALP’s Right-wing factions as being the descendants of the Catholic social movement, while the Centre-Left and Left factions may be seen descendants of Protestant Fabians and Marxists.

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister

Australia’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Bob Carr, is a deeply serious and intellectual politician.  He was Premier of Australia’s largest state, New South Wales, for 10 years, making him the state’s longest continuously-serving leader. (Only Henry Parkes in the 19th century beats him non-continuously.)  A former journalist, Carr is renowned for his detailed knowledge of US political arcana, having read, it seems, every book on US history, law and politics published since Thomas Harriott’s account of Virginia in 1588.  As Premier, he undertook major environmental initiatives, creating acres of new national parks.  His key failing was not to tackle Sydney’s transport infrastructure crisis, but perhaps this is a problem too hard for a democratic leader to solve.

As an intellectual, Carr is in a long Australian tradition of serious, heavy-weight Foreign Ministers:  John Latham, Doc Evatt (President of the UN General Assembly in 1948-9), Garfield Barwick, Paul Hasluck, Gough Whitlam, Bill Hayden, Gareth Evans, and, of course, most recently, Kevin Rudd.    Carr is perhaps the only politician in the country who could make Rudd look intellectually ill-equipped  for the job of Foreign Minister.  Even the non-intellectuals who have been foreign minister  have often been men of principle, humanity and integrity, men who sought to make the world better than it had been – for instance, Stanley Bruce, Percy Spender, Richard Casey, Andrew Peacock, Alexander Downer, and Stephen Smith.  Several of Carr’s predecessors went on to higher roles – eg, vice-regality (Casey, Hasluck, Hayden), judicial office (Latham, Evatt, Spender, Barwick), or to work for international organizations (Bruce, Spender, Evans).

How strange then that just two weeks ago, Carr was retired, pursuing his literary and writing interests, and not even a member of any Parliament.  His long-ago-stated life’s ambition to be foreign minister looked like a pipe dream.   As Gore Vidal wrote of his grandfather, a blind man who became Oklahoma’s first Senator, no obstacle is too great if you mean to prevail.

It is interesting, I think, that the surprise resignation which provided the opportunity for Carr to enter the Senate, and thus to become Foreign Minister, was that of NSW Senator Mark Arbib, who, according to Wikileaks, was a regular visitor to the US Embassy in Canberra.  The NSW Right faction, of which both Arbib and Carr are members (as was Paul Keating), is known for its admiration for the USA, and its wonkish interest in US politics.   There would be few other foreign ministers who would know, without having to first check, which state primaries the US Secretary of State’s husband won in the 1992 presidential election, for example.

And what will be Carr’s priorities? At his first press conference, he mentioned his admiration for Indonesia’s society and people, contrary to most Australian media reporting, so I expect he will take a close interest in Asia. (His wife was born in Malaysia.) He does not speak Mandarin, as Rudd does, but he shares Rudd’s awareness of the potential negative consequences that a resurgent undemocratic China may have on the region and globally.   Carr’s americanophilia will enable him, better than anyone else in Australia perhaps, to steer a policy course in Australia’s own interests, and not slavishly dependent on US views of the world.  Some messages only good friends can give, and that makes Carr’s position a very strong one for the Australian-American alliance, and for American self-awareness about its true place in the world.


A Rainbow Nathan

From the Sydney Morning Herald (2011-03-26):

”Your colourful surnames reminded me of a situation we had at Maclean High School in the ’90s,” writes Steve McKenzie, a teacher, of Yamba, ”where we had Nathan Black, Nathan Grey, Nathan Green, Nathan White and Nathan Brown all in the same year. My colleague even had all the coloured Nathans in the one class.”

Your PhD viva: the snake fight

Luke Burns at McSweeney’s has written an FAQ to the “Snake Fight” portion of the PhD Thesis Defense:

Q: Do I have to kill the snake?
A: University guidelines state that you have to “defeat” the snake. There are many ways to accomplish this. Lots of students choose to wrestle the snake. Some construct decoys and elaborate traps to confuse and then ensnare the snake. One student brought a flute and played a song to lull the snake to sleep. Then he threw the snake out a window.

Q: Does everyone fight the same snake?
A: No. You will fight one of the many snakes that are kept on campus by the facilities department.

Q: Are the snakes big?
A: We have lots of different snakes. The quality of your work determines which snake you will fight. The better your thesis is, the smaller the snake will be.

Q: Does my thesis adviser pick the snake?
A: No. Your adviser just tells the guy who picks the snakes how good your thesis was.

Q: What does it mean if I get a small snake that is also very strong?
A: Snake-picking is not an exact science. The size of the snake is the main factor. The snake may be very strong, or it may be very weak. It may be of Asian, African, or South American origin. It may constrict its victims and then swallow them whole, or it may use venom to blind and/or paralyze its prey. You shouldn’t read too much into these other characteristics. Although if you get a poisonous snake, it often means that there was a problem with the formatting of your bibliography.

Q: When and where do I fight the snake? Does the school have some kind of pit or arena for snake fights?
A: You fight the snake in the room you have reserved for your defense. The fight generally starts after you have finished answering questions about your thesis. However, the snake will be lurking in the room the whole time and it can strike at any point. If the snake attacks prematurely it’s obviously better to defeat it and get back to the rest of your defense as quickly as possible.

Q: Would someone who wrote a bad thesis and defeated a large snake get the same grade as someone who wrote a good thesis and defeated a small snake?
A: Yes.

Q: So then couldn’t you just fight a snake in lieu of actually writing a thesis?
A: Technically, yes. But in that case the snake would be very big. Very big, indeed.

Q: Could the snake kill me?
A: That almost never happens. But if you’re worried, just make sure that you write a good thesis.

Q: Why do I have to do this?
A: Snake fighting is one of the great traditions of higher education. It may seem somewhat antiquated and silly, like the robes we wear at graduation, but fighting a snake is an important part of the history and culture of every reputable university. Almost everyone with an advanced degree has gone through this process. Notable figures such as John Foster Dulles, Philip Roth, and Doris Kearns Goodwin (to name but a few) have all had to defeat at least one snake in single combat.

Q: This whole snake thing is just a metaphor, right?
A: I assure you, the snakes are very real.