David Hunt



David Hunt

Scott Morrison is a dingo in sheep’s clothing. Lech Blaine’s Quarterly Essay leaves us in no doubt that the chickens of the PM’s self-publicised coop should be wary whenever their jailer ambles towards them with a carefully curated bowl of kitchen scraps – and not just on curry night.

On this subject, Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power presents nothing new. Politicians pretend their way to power? Who’d have thunk it? While Morrison’s masquerading as “a typical Aussie bloke” who loves a beer at the Sharkies’ game is disingenuous – and coming up with his own nickname (after road-testing it with a focus group of men in shiny vests) is just plain sad – these deceptions pale in comparison to those of some of Australia’s early Labor leaders.

In 1886, Chris Watson left New Zealand for Sydney, where he found work mucking out Government House’s stables. Seventeen years later, with an intuitive understanding of the connection between government and shovelling shit, he became prime minister of Australia and the world’s first Labor/Labour national leader. Watson didn’t just give himself a new nickname – he manufactured a whole new identity. No one knew that Kiwi Chris Watson was really Chilean John Tanck until after his death. Tanck, who had a non-British father and had never applied for British citizenship, would have known he was constitutionally ineligible to sit in the Australian parliament, let alone serve as prime minister.

King O’Malley, Labor’s minister for home affairs in the 1910 Fisher government, was another proto-Barnaby. This is, of course, a reference to O’Malley’s foreign citizenship excluding him from the Australian parliament and is in no way intended to imply that Barnaby had home affairs (he appears to have used his workplace and discreet motels). O’Malley, the man responsible for constructing the national capital in a frozen sheep paddock, pretended to be a respectable British Canadian, rather than an insurance salesman from Kansas.

Thomas Walker was a Labor man who actually did come to Australia from Canada … to escape a manslaughter charge. A coronial inquiry found the young medium had killed a combustible seance attendee who’d come into contact with the phosphorous he used to make “spiritual lights.” In 1877, Walker fled to Melbourne, where he delivered the first of a series of Australian spiritualist lectures, during which he claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar, cosmologist and occultist burned at the stake in 1600 for saying sacramental wine was not the blood of Christ and Mary was not a virgin. In 1892, while a NSW member of parliament, he was charged with shooting and wounding a clergyman while drunk. None of this stopped Thomas Walker serving as a West Australian Labor attorney-general and minister for justice and education.

Politicians who lied about their name or nationality, or claimed to be an undead Italian heretic, make Morrison’s frauds on the Australian public seem milder than one of his chicken curries. But the falsehoods of these early MPs were essentially personal in nature and didn’t interfere with their policy platforms.

Some other early Australian leaders abandoned ideology and jettisoned principle for political gain. Joseph Cook, the first leader of the NSW parliamentary Labor Party, ditched the silent “e” in his name as an ostentation unbefitting a working man. He then ditched being a working man, joining, and later leading, the Free Trade Party; becoming prime minister as leader of the anti-Labor and anti–free trade Liberal Party; and again turning coat to serve as deputy prime minister in the Nationalist government of Billy Hughes.

Hughes, another Labor man turned political weathervane, represented six parties during his parliamentary career, leading five of them. Prime Minister Robert Menzies once commented that Hughes had been a member of every political party, at which point Arthur Fadden interjected he’d never joined his Country Party. Hughes, showing that what he lacked in political consistency he made up for with a sense of humour, retorted, “I had to draw the line somewhere, didn’t I?”

I reference these Labor men (and they were all men for a long while) not to attack their party or ideology, or to pump the wheels of the Coalition bus, but to make the point that Morrison is merely at the tail of a conga line of suckholes of all political stripes.

Politicians should not be criticised for changing their views over time or in response to altered circumstances, but Cook and Hughes arguably ditched their core political beliefs for personal political gain. In fairness to Morrison, he can’t be accused of ditching his core political beliefs, because he’s never held any. No Australian politician, even one-armed Peter Lalor, has had Morrison’s facility for not holding things. His capacity to say one thing and then declare the opposite, while unashamedly maintaining his position has never changed, is unrivalled in Australian political history. While another conservative leader was not for turning, Morrison is not for sticking. He is human Teflon.

Many Australians recognise this. The question is: why do they put up with it? Lech Blaine is right in laying the blame, at least in part, on “the identity crisis at the heart of Australia,” although he over-eggs the larrikin pudding.

One of the issues I have with Blaine’s eminently readable and enjoyable essay is that while he accuses Morrison, Hawke and other powerful people of hijacking the larrikin for personal gain, Blaine also appropriates the larrikin. He projects aspects of the current larrikin image (egalitarianism and disregard for convention) back in time and suggests larrikins shared a strong affinity with the working class and labour movement. A reader of Blaine’s essay would be left with the impression that striking shearers, bush poets such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, bushranger Ned Kelly, writer Miles (aka Stella) Franklin and feminist Vida Goldstein were all larrikins.

The term “larrikin” first appeared in print in Melbourne in 1870. Larrikins were not knockabout blokes who called a spade a spade – they were disaffected young people who formed loose gangs, known as “forties” and then “pushes”. The larrikin was a “yob” – that is, a boy in the back slang of the English costermongers (mobile grocers with attitude) whom the larrikins modelled themselves on. “Yob” came to mean a lout or hooligan, because that is what larrikins were. Following the 1886 sexual assault of Mary Jane Hicks by members of the Waterloo Push, and a series of similar offences, they were popularly perceived as gang rapists.

While most nineteenth-century larrikins had “working-class” backgrounds, they were generally unskilled labourers – tuppenny capitalists who disdained those who’d learnt a trade. They loathed the labour movement, and the emerging trade unions loathed them in return. Larrikins disrupted union parades and pickets, hurling abuse and rotten food at the marching or striking workers. Causing mayhem at union picnics was a favourite larrikin sport.

The nihilism at the heart of larrikin culture drew them to the legend of Ned Kelly, a man whose charisma and showmanship elevated him from being a poor, horse-thieving, police-murdering terrorist with a penchant for cast-iron fetish wear into Australia’s answer to Robin Hood. The “larrikin class was strongly represented” at the 5 November 1880 Melbourne rally that called for the government to commute the bushranger’s death sentence, but Kelly was in no way a larrikin. He was country, while the larrikins were very much city.

Bushmen were not larrikins. The striking shearers did not see larrikins as co-revolutionaries in the war between labour and capital but as self-indulgent, antisocial townies. Banjo Paterson painted larrikins as vicious urban thugs in “Uncle Bill: The Larrikin’s Lament”, with Henry Lawson doing likewise in “The Captain of the Push.” Larrikins, like many other Australians, were drawn to the professional sports that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular boxing and Australian Rules football, and later rugby league. Lawson saw the Australian obsession with sport over the arts as a blight, writing in “A Song of Southern Writers”:

In the land where sport is sacred, where the lab’rer is a god, You must pander to the people, make a hero of a clod!

Lawson was in no way a larrikin. Neither was his protégé and fellow writer Miles Franklin. Franklin was a deep thinker and keen social observer, while larrikins cultivated an air of insular anti-intellectualism. Vida Goldstein, like Franklin, was a feminist – a charge that could never be levelled at larrikins, who the popular press accused of demeaning and assaulting their “donahs” or “tarts”, as women who inhabited the edges of larrikin society were known. Goldstein was unabashedly intellectual and passionate about politics and improving Australian society, again areas into which larrikins rarely strayed.

Nobody liked a larrikin, not even other larrikins, with the most vicious larrikin assaults reserved for members of rival pushes. Strangely, it was the arts, not sport, that began the rehabilitation of the larrikin image, first with music-hall larrikin acts in the late nineteenth century, then with the writing of C.J. Dennis, whose Sentimental Bloke and Ginger Mick were uncomplicated working-class blokes with hearts, dreams and aspirations. World War I gave rise to the larrikin digger trope, an irreverent bloke whose dishevelled dress showed his disrespect for the British officers he served under. As larrikins stopped their street brawls and shooting each other in the late 1920s, the larrikin menace faded, and the larrikin mantle settled on the shoulders of the knockabout anti-authoritarian male.

Blaine’s historical larrikin is myth, as is his story of the foundation of the Australian Labor Party, a fable nurtured by generations of Labor men and women, most of whom undoubtedly believe it to be true. Blaine traces the ALP back to the 1891 striking shearers who gathered in the Queensland town of Barcaldine – and the shearers’ 1891 May Day march and reading of the Manifesto of the Queensland Labour Party to a gathering of workers under the Barcaldine ghost gum on 9 September 1892 – undoubtedly key moments in the history of the Australian labour movement.

However, this myth ignores the NSW origin story, which traces the birth of the party to quarryman Charles Hart convening the first Labour Electoral League meeting at Balmain’s Unity Hall Hotel on 4 April 1891. South Australians, by contrast, insist they founded the Labor Party, when the United Trades and Labor Council met on 7 January 1891 (almost certainly at a far creepier location than a pub or a tree) to form the United Labor Party of South Australia. All and none of these foundation stories are true. There was no angelic trumpet, or even the drunken cry of a striking shearer tripping over an unshorn sheep, to herald Labor’s birth. There were instead a number of meetings of unionists, socialists and radicals, held across the colonies, where it was agreed that industrial action, in the absence of political representation, was no longer sufficient to advance workers’ rights.

The fact is the Queensland origin story is more romantic – and it has a tree in it, a key element in many origin myths. Labor even named the ghost gum “The Tree of Knowledge,” a blatant biblical rip-off. The Queensland story was a deliberate attempt by Labor’s founding fathers to link the party to the biggest Australian myth of all – the bush legend – a myth so powerful that it made citizens of the most urbanised society on earth (if you ignored First Nations people) build a common identity around the idealised bushman, his stoic wife and their golden-haired, ruddy-cheeked children, a myth with the power to make a mild-mannered Sydney accountant who owned an Akubra think he was the Man from Snowy River.

The emerging labour movement latched onto the bush legend like a blowfly to a jumbuck’s jacksy, hoping that a little of its magic would rub off. As acknowledged by William Guthrie Spence, foundation president of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australasia and a founding father of Labor:

Labor … is a political as well as a propagandist movement. Its leaders realise that before we can have social reform the people must be educated to demand and carry out … reforms … It is slow work getting the right ideas knocked into the masses. They are mostly so mentally lazy that they take their views ready-made from a misleading press.

Blaine’s essay identifies a number of other key Australian myths, in particular that Australians are naturally anti-authoritarian, a myth closely tied to that of the larrikin. Australians, as acknowledged by Blaine, are one of the most law-abiding people on earth. From the foundation of the convict colony of New South Wales, government provided services that were delivered by churches, charities, friendly societies or private enterprise in other societies. Despite these services, and the administrations and budgets that grew to provide them, the residents of the Australian colonies paid no direct taxes until Victoria introduced a modest land tax in 1877. The Australian colonies led the world in establishing the modern secret ballot, postal voting, full women’s suffrage, independent electoral bodies and a host of other reforms that increased public confidence in government and its institutions. Most Australians have accordingly been historically trusting of the state, its institutions and, sometimes regrettably, its politicians.

Australians’ willingness to embrace myths have allowed them to reinvent themselves. Their desire to rinse the convict stain from the moral fabric of the nation, which remained strong until the late 1970s, led them to fabricate their own family histories, replacing ancestral handkerchief thieves with sturdy farmers, adventurers and down-on-their luck aristocrats. They pushed the inconvenient truths of the dispossession and frontier murder of First Nations people, and of White Australia, to the back of their collective consciousness and conscience, embracing John Howard’s 1996 “Bex, a cuppa and a good lie down” mantra that we should feel “comfortable and relaxed about our past, as the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement.”

Blaine cites Clare Wright, one of Australia’s most compelling and insightful historians, as arguing that Labor can’t “consistently win federal government until it tells a coherent story that links back to deeper myths about Australian identity.” I respectfully disagree. My view is that we Australians and the politicians that serve us should not attach ourselves to myths, but to truth.

Our susceptibility to myth-making allows us to accept the bush and larrikin legends, and their appropriation by elites. It allows us to embrace the myth of anti-authoritarianism, without asking difficult questions of those in authority. It allows us to look inwards on our own self-created realities, as we lock out the world from Fortress Australia, lock out the “new foreigners” of the other Australian states from our resurrected parochial fiefdoms and lock out the disadvantaged and the dispossessed from our McMansions.

Blaine cites Russel Ward’s 1958 The Australian Legend, which concluded that the “typical Australian” “believes that Jack is not only as good as his master but, at least in principle, probably a good deal better.” Sixty-three years later, it’s now, “I’m alright, Jack.”

Until we Australians look beyond our own self-interest, discard myths for truths and accept our past in all its beauty and its terror, we will be condemned to a stunted present and an even more diminished future. We will turn a deaf ear to the lies of politicians such as Morrison as long as they comfort us with platitudes about being at the front of the queue and being the best people in the world. We get the politicians we deserve.

David Hunt


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 83, Top Blokes. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 84, The Reckoning.


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