Group think, politics and unexpected positions

One of the most depressing things about modern politics – especially in the US but also in Australia – is that to hear one assertion from a politician allows you to predict their views on just about every other issue you can think of.

Well that’s not strictly true of Donald Trump, of course, nor the odd Government type such as Warren Entsch or John Williams. However, in the latter cases their variation from the official line – unlike Trump – tends to be along the rational, progressive lines that Malcolm Turnbull once espoused.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s it was a bit different especially in the then-Coalition governments and also in business and other places. Then, Colin Benjamin in his days as a student activist heavily influenced by Saul Alinksy, coined the term ‘Rissonism’ to describe the phenomena. The term came from the track record of Major-General Robert (later Sir Robert) Risson who was Chair of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board from 1949 to 1972. As was standard for the days the Major-General was very agitated about the threat of communism – both the red hordes descending from the north and from internal subversion. Except for his additional enthusiasm for the crusade that was pretty standard practice for conservatives of the time. But what made Risson different was his belief that the best way to insulate the working classes from the scourge of communism was to treat them decently and provide reasonable pay and reasonable conditions. From time to time there was profound disagreement between public transport unions and the Tramways but, compared to the problems when Jim Kennan was the Labor Transport Minister in the 1980s, the disagreements were quite mild. Additionally Risson was a strong believer in government-owned and run trams and public transport at a time when the answer to all traffic problems was to be freeways. Indeed, the terrific tram system Melbournians still have (could be better but not disappeared as in many other cities around the world) is in many ways a credit to him.

A similar case was Bill Wentworth, a Liberal MP descended from the famous/infamous William Charles Wentworth. Bill (or Billy and/or silly Billy to many) was not exactly a shrinking violet in the anti-communism stakes but he did have some views years ahead of most of his conservative contemporaries. He spent time in Central Australia with Indigenous Australians; moved a private member’s bill to bring about an end to constitutional racial discrimination; was a strong supporter of the 1967 referendum; and, along with Gordon Bryant and Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders’ members such as Shirley Andrews, Doug Nicholls, Winnie Branson, Faith Bandler, Stan Davey and many others helped make the referendum campaign successful. The full story can be found in The 1967 Referendum by Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus.  It is thought that part of Wentworth’s motivation was to avoid communists ‘infiltrating’ the Aboriginal advancement campaign. Whatever the motivation the outcome was a good one even if in retrospect the view, like that of Risson, seems paternal and patronising.

A similar case, this time in the 1880s, was the campaign by the squatter James Dawson to persuade the government to drop the plan to call a new Yarra Valley dam, Watts, and have it named after the Indigenous name for the area – Maroondah. He suggested the government contact the Coranderrk community to find out what the appropriate name was had been done in the case of Yan Yean some years before. Dawson may have squatted on traditional lands in the Western District and Upper Yarra but he did have respect for Aboriginal place names and wrote a book on Western District Indigenous languages, culture and place names. Nevertheless, part of his Maroondah motivation was that the Watts name, derived from the Watts River, “was strongly tinged with the blood of convicts and rebels.” What was the primary motivation? Did he just use the argument as a framing device to make his option more appealing? It’s impossible to tell now but the impact was that a part of Victorian Indigenous culture was honoured as a result. The full story can be found in the March 2016 of the State Library of Victoria’s The LaTrobe Journal. Whatever the motivation, a few more Australian conservative politicians ought to be taking Dawson, Risson and Wentworth as exemplars rather than deriving their ideas from Republican Tea Partiers.

The Journal edition is, by the way, as usual full of interesting stuff and is always well-illustrated with items from the SLV collection. The blog learnt, for instance that the SLV’s first chief librarian Augustus Henry Tulk, was an early patron of William Blake. There is also a long extract from Michael Cannon’s unpublished autobiography. Cannon wrote the brilliant book The Land Boomers about the Victorian land boom and the dastardly deeds of the forbears of many of Melbourne’s most prominent families. Even today’s banks could learn a thing or two from them. Michael Cannon was also the blog’s editor at the old, and now long gone Sunday Observer, funded by Gordon Barton as well as the author and editor of many other books such as Historical Records of Victoria.

 The extract has some contemporary resonance. He wrote a book on Indigenous genocide in Victoria called Who Killed the Koories? (later reprinted as a paperback Black Land/White Land) and took the book to John Timlin’s literary agency, The Almost Managing Co.  Cannon writes: “John cleverly played one potential publisher against another to win what seemed to me a large advance on future royalties.  Eventually Louise Adler, then publisher at William Heinemann Australia, agreed to pay Timlin’s demands….I doubt if Heinemann ever made a profit from the deal, while I remained rather conscience-stricken from profiting from the story of the long-dead Aborigines.” The autobiographical extract is a terrific story about Australian writing and publishing, what it’s like to make a freelance career as a writer and Victoria.