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Book Review: “Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation” By Melissa Harper and Richard White (eds.)

On 9 October 2000, Kerry Jones and Harold Scruby debated if the Australian flag should be changed on Howard Sattler’s 2SM radio program. The dramatis personae touched on the expected topics, weighing the merits of maintaining tradition against ensuring that national symbols are relevant. The debate ended on a humorous note when Scruby asked Jones, ‘how many stars are on the Australian flag?’ The question caught her off guard, and she tried to deflect it, perhaps buying time as she tried to create a mental image. Are there four or five stars in the Southern Cross? Is it the same as New Zealand’s flag? After much goading, she eventually guessed five. There are six.

It was droll to see a professional defender of the Australian flag unable to answer a fundamental question about its design but also instructive. As Elizabeth Kwan’s thoughtful chapter in Symbols of Australia shows, the flag is far more than coloured cloth. It has ‘always invited controversy’.

In 2015, I ran a large survey with the Institute for Culture and Society on alternatives to the current flag. The most popular designs included other symbols that are discussed in the book: kangaroo, wattle, and most frequently, the Southern Cross. I also received many passionate complaints about running the survey at all. These often included the claim that our troops fought for that flag at Gallipoli. The fact that the blue ensign only replaced the Union Jack as the national flag in 1954 did not seem to matter.

Symbols of Australia was published by NewSouth

The desire to defend the national flag does not require a deep knowledge of its history or design. The thugs who took part in the 2005 Cronulla Riots draped themselves in Australian flags. Weeks later, a gang harassed festival-goers at the Big Day Out if they refused to kiss the flag. How many in either group would know how many stars there are or when it became the national flag?

Like Jones, their passion is not for aesthetics but for a meaning they have attached to the flag. When victorious athletes drape the flag around their shoulders, it means something very different from the ardent anti-vaxxer who brandishes it at a ‘freedom’ march, or the school child who raises it before morning assembly. As the editors note, ‘an effective symbol papers over disagreements’.

The national flag is the most obvious symbol of Australia, but it is far from the only one. In Symbols of Australia, edited by Melissa Harper and Richard White, an impressive line-up of academics, journalists, and artists explore the history and changing meaning of twenty-eight Australian symbols. Originally published in 2010 by UNSW Press, the new version includes updated chapters and two new ones: Iain McCalman on the Great Barrier Reef; and Judith Brett on the humble ‘democracy sausage’.

For some authors, the chance to revisit their chapters was particularly helpful. Robert Crawford was able to bring the story of Holden to its sad conclusion, with the company dissolving after Joe Hockey infamously dared General Motors to leave Australia. Roslynn Haynes’ lucid chapter on Uluru now includes the successful campaign for a climbing ban and the inspiration this sacred site gave to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Other authors did not have the benefit of such significant events to report on. Have Australian attitudes towards gum trees or lifesavers changed all that much in the last decade?

Politicians have eagerly attempted to link themselves with many of the symbols that are examined in this book. Many have tried to utilise Anzac symbolism, none more so than the ‘little digger’, Billy Hughes, prime minister during much of World War I. Paul Keating and John Howard attempted to change and preserve the flag respectively. Leaders of all stripes have taken part in the ritual cosplay of wearing an Akubra when leaving their city electorates to visitregional Australia. A study of political appropriation of national symbols would be a fascinating project in itself, but, pleasingly, this work is broader. It is interested in the larger relationship between the symbols and the nation they are supposed to represent.    

National symbols can certainly be commercialised but can they be created for this purpose? The editors conclude in the negative and Foster’s beer, despite literally claiming in a 2000 campaign that ‘I am Australia’, is a noticeable omission. Fosters features prominently in the Barry McKenzie films of the 1970s and again when the Simpsons visited Australia in the 1990s, but this is too contrived and outward-facing for the editors. Like the briefly popular, flag-wearing cleaning products salesman Big Kev, perhaps Fosters tries too hard. Instead, they turn to the humble pavlova, despite the inevitable outcry from New Zealanders, as an authentic Australian symbol.   

There is some irony that Australia has no distinctive claim to its most enduring symbol, the Southern Cross. The ancient constellation predates European colonisation, is visible throughout the southern hemisphere, and features in the flags of New Zealand, Brazil, PNG, Samoa, as well as Australia. Despite this, it has been appropriated and indigenised with an enduring tenacity. On the Eureka flag, it was waved by radicals in the nineteenth century just as conservatives saluted it on the blue ensign in the twentieth. In this century, it is both the most common Australian tattoo and the most frequently removed.

Its appeal transcends political groups – the definition of an effective symbol. While militant unionists brandied it in the 1998 waterfront disputes, two decades later Pope Benedict XVI blessed it in the form of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, a painting that hangs in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral. The religious element is significant. As Jane Taylor notes, it was only ever a cross to European eyes. For hundreds of generations, First Nations in Australia and South America looked to the stars and saw something very different.

Our Lady of the Southern Cross, Help of Christians, hangs in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.

Mark McKenna’s chapter, the standout in a fine collection, explores the complex symbolism of the Crown. Perhaps the most malleable symbol in the book, it is ‘abstract and concrete, at once foreign and indigenous’. It entered Australia through what he perspicaciously calls a ‘kind of sorcery’. James Cook stood on Possession Island in 1770, performed a special ritual, and the traditional county of First Nations somehow became Crown land.

Of all the symbols in this book, the Crown is the only one that faces formal opposition (the Australian Republic Movement) and that one day may be legally expunged. Its historic flexibility shows what a difficult task this is. Despite the seeming contradictions, it has morphed from a symbol of British imperialism to one of Australian democracy. As Anne Twomey succinctly writes, it is a ‘chameleon Crown’.

Like the editors and other authors, McKenna accepts the Andersonian dictum that all communities larger than primordial villages are imagined. There is, however, great power in these collective imaginations. Especially for those who would like to see the British crown removed (or the flag changed), the first task is ‘to understand, rather than mock’ the mystical power of the symbol.

The editors overreach in claiming that Australians are ‘particularly enthusiastic’ about symbols and have ‘more than their fair share’. From Ernest Gellner to Eric Hobsbawm, scholars generally agree that the nation, in the formal, diplomatic sense that the editors use the term, is both a novel and modern construction. Australians were not ‘relative latecomers to nation-making’, as the editors claim. They had over half a century head start on the dozens of nations created in the decades after World War II. From official government designs, to landscapes, flora, fauna, and the things we wear and eat; all nations are in the symbol business.

Australia is not uniquely a ‘land of symbols’ and in 2018 Canadian scholars had no difficulty in publishing a similar work on their national symbols. That does not lessen the worthiness of this collection. Symbols of Australia provides a fascinating insight into how twenty-eight Australian symbols came to assume a prominent place in the collective imagination.

You can find the book HERE.

Benjamin T. Jones is a Senior lecturer in history at Central Queensland University and a Foundation Fellow of the Australian Studies Institute. He has published extensively on Australian politics and history with a focus on national identity and republicanism. His most recent books are This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future (Redback, 2018) and History in a Post-Truth World: Theory and Praxis (Routledge, 2020).

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Book Review: “Murder In Tottenham: Australia’s first political assassination” by Rowan Day

The beauty of semester break is that I can finally turn my eyes from marking essays to some of the books and articles I’ve been meaning to read. One of the first I picked up was Rowan Day’s ominously titled, Murder in Tottenham. I was lucky enough to be at the book launch at Sydney’s historic Trades Hall. The sense of history was thick in the air and befitted a book dealing with the turbulent and often violent times when union clashes with the police and government were common.

Day presents a fascinating account of the revolutionary unionists, the International Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the Wobblies. The picture he paints is one of wild idealism and violent struggle for the mythical paradise for workers in the early days of Federation. He writes:

“The Tottenham Wobblies and their associates have been largely forgotten, despite doing everything imaginable to insert themselves into the history books. They rebelled against a economic and political structure they despised. They did this not only in Tottenham, but across Australia, New Zealand and America. The fact that some of them resorted to bullets and bombs shows just how fierce this struggle was” (p.159).

The focus of the book is refreshing. Rather than the heady political atmosphere in Sydney during World War I – ground well covered by historians of New South Wales – Day turns his attention to the small mining town of Tottenham. It was here that George Duncan, the only police officer in town was murdered by two Wobblies.

The book’s claim to cover Australia’s first political assassination is perhaps a stretch. Day reasons that Duncan was the highest symbol of state authority figure in the town and “For this reason, his killing can be seen as a political assassination” (p.159). Yet the evidence presented in the book does not really suggest the murderers were politically motivated. Indeed, the murder seems the only non-political event in the whole tale. Frank Franz and Roland Kennedy objected to Duncan’s heavy-handed policing. Kennedy knew he was wanted by Duncan and both he and Franz were intoxicated when they fired bullets into the officer’s back. There is little sense that the murder was on behalf of the Wobblies or to further their cause.

Whether the reader accepts this as a political assassination per se or simply a murder in a political climate – the throes of the Australian conscription debate and mass industrial action – the narrative is compelling.

Where Day really shines is bringing in the wider context of the global Wobblies movement. He shows the interconnectivity of the early twentieth century Anglosphere and the terror revolutionary unionism inspired not only for conservatives but the acceptable left and even political trade unionists. Indeed, it was Labor Prime Minister (later Labor rat) Billy Hughes who insisted the Wobblies “must be attacked with the ferocity of a Bengal Tiger” (p.82).

The Sydney Twelve trial, which found IWW members guilty of treason, was still in session when Franz and Kennedy were tried. The hysteria of the period is palpable in Day’s account. This fed into the most outrageous death sentence to be delivered in Australian legal history. Allegedly promised a reduced sentence and even a monetary reward for his family, Franz decided to turn Crown’s witness. His subsequent execution was unprecedented. As Day explains;

“Never in Australian history, before or since, has somebody been executed after becoming a witness for the Crown or ‘turning King’s evidence’” (p.115).

Such was the terror inspired by the Wobblies and the ruthless pursuit by the government and employer groups to destroy them.

Day’s book sheds a welcome light on rural politics in turn of the century New South Wales. He finishes with a poignant discussion if the Tottenham Wobblies belong in Russel Ward’s Australian Legend. The State’s fierce determination to suppress the IWW is also helpfully unpacked.

As Day notes:

“That a Cabinet in the process of preparing an anti-capital punishment bill would so firmly endorse two hangings … shows clearly that this was a time unique in modern Australian history” (p.126).

This book is well worth the read if for no other reason than it has some eerie similarities to many Western governments in the age of terrorism. Certainly in Australia, the state seems no more open to revolutionary groups or even counter opinions now than it was 100 years ago when Day’s story takes place.

In short, this is well written and superbly researched (as befits a book emerging from a PhD thesis). More importantly it is a good yarn and an exciting period in Australian history. Whether or not the murder was political – everything else in the book most certainly is.