The amazing Comrade Jones

It is very useful to be reminded, from time to time, just how amazing the polymath and National Treasure, Barry Jones, actually is.

The blog first met Barry Jones when it was a student active in the University of Melbourne anti-hanging committee when Barry was leading the opposition to the Ryan hanging. Later the blog worked for the ALP Parliamentary Party when Barry was a Victorian MP and like everybody who knows him is constantly amazed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge.

Barrister Julian Burnside has organised a celebratory poetry reading evening at Forty Five Downstairs on Tuesday December 15 to mark Barry’s 83rd birthday. Readers will include Shane Maloney and Race Mathews as well as Barry himself. Currently the event is sold out but it might be worth checking closer to the date to see if there are cancellations.

Thinking about the celebration the blog couldn’t help recalling just a few of the things Barry had talked about at events, in just the space of a few months. Barry spoke at the recent Humanties21 launch of the proposed 2016 Homer Festival. As the festival organisers asked: “Why is it that The Iliad and The Odyssey, one an epic poem of war, violence and masculinity, the second more like a novel, subtle, nuanced and questing, maintain their compelling power after nearly 3000 years?” On a platform with the poet Pi O; one of the Coodabeen Champions; an academic reading from the Greek; another performer reading from the Lattimore translation; and a musical group Barry was the stand out success talking about what Homer meant to him.

Earlier in November Barry spoke at the Whitlam Institute conference – Gough Whitlam and the Social Democratic Imagination: the challenge for contemporary public policy. In a wide-ranging discussion of Whitlam, the ALP since Whitlam and the current ALP he ranged across a variety of topics. Perhaps the most apposite were the personal and policy leadership challenges facing the ALP.

 “In the turbulent 1960s and 1970s four controversial figures changed the face of the ALP: Gough Whitlam, Don Dunstan, Lionel Murphy and Jim Cairns, but of the quartet Gough proved to be dominant,” he said.

“In the 1970s there were other powerful figures making an impact on the ALP: Bob Hawke, President of the ACTU and Prime Minister-in-waiting, Bill Hayden, a powerful autodidact, Mick Young, National Secretary, later a Minister under Hawke. One could add the scholarly but detached Kim Beazley, Sr, and Clyde Cameron, a powerful debater, remorseless antagonist and assiduous historian. That’s nine in the 1960s-70s.

“Can we, in this decade, identify nine current Labor politicians with equivalent intellectual power and persistence? I doubt it,” he said.

Speaking about the Whitlam funeral he went on to say: “The event reminded us that there was a time, and there was a Leader who could transform Australian society – shatter old beliefs, look towards transcendent possibility and tell a story to be proud of. Are we up to the challenge of struggling for that objective?”

What’s clear is that there are fewer people trying to do so. There are, he said; “More people on the waiting list for the Melbourne Cricket Club than are members of all Australia’s political parties. The Geelong Football Club has 43,000 members, exactly the same as the number claimed for the ALP.”

Amidst this commentary, of course, we ought not forget that Barry is a powerful political campaigner. During the Hawke years, for instance, only PM Hawke received more invitations to campaign events than Barry did.

A bit earlier Barry was the guest speaker at the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society annual general meeting talking about Unresolved issues in Australian history looking at contemporary delusions about Australia and its history.

For instance: “Research and restoration at the site demonstrated that the life of convicts at Port Arthur was not quite so bleak as tradition suggested. Port Arthur was the industrial hub of Van Diemen’s Land. More than 250 vessels were built there.  There was an iron foundry and extensive manufacturing, demanding, skilled work, not quasi-slave labour under the lash. The site developed a sophisticated system of using water power for grinding grain. For decades, Port Arthur had Van Diemen’s Land’s biggest library, and it was extensively used. The first reclaimed land, in front of the penitentiary, was used for a cricket pitch.  In the centre of the site was ‘The Governor’s Garden’, now restored. It is now, and was then, a site of exceptional beauty.  Van Diemen’s Land was the British Empire’s Stasiland and the life and health of convicts was extensively, even obsessively, recorded. It is clear that life expectancy and general health of convicts at Port Arthur was better than in the general community in Van Diemen’s Land.”

Turning to a subject dear to the blog’s heart – Australian enthusiasm for war – and its subsequent employment as a nationalistic propaganda device Barry said: “We need to ask: ‘Why the enthusiasm for involvement in war?’ There seems to have been a compelling sense that Australia’s colonists, at the end of the earth, would be forgotten unless they were seen to be involved. ‘Australia will be there.’ It is matched by the enthusiasm shown for the building of forts to protect Australia from invasion, Fort Largs and Fort Granville in South Australia, Queenscliffe in Victoria, and Battery Point, near Hobart. They were to ensure that the Russians did not invade. I concede that this objective worked. The Russians never came.” Notwithstanding this, current Australian naval leaders are once again suggesting the Russians are on their way.

On the Middle East: “Every Western intervention in the Middle East in the past century (except for the creation of Israel in 1948, and this is still bitterly contested)  has failed and it is wildly optimistic to assume that action against Islamic State will be any more successful, repulsive though it is. A precondition to effective action is a deep understanding of the historic religious and ethnic hatreds inside the Middle East – and I see little evidence of this.”

On jihadist ideology Barry listed “the central beliefs of jihadists as: hostility to science and scientific method; rejection of evidence-based decision making; hostility to modernity; resistance to feminism and the changing roles of women; theocracy; dogmatism; homophobia; need to have enemies to provide the rationale for action; inability to comprehend differing points of view; willingness to use force; cultivation of  a siege mentality; dismissal of United Nations and international opinion; prepared to damage to World Heritage sites; turning a blind eye to cruelty; acting outside the rule of law; punishing critics or whistle blowers; and use of simple explanations for complex problems. We need to be careful that in opposing their ideology, we do not adopt elements of it ourselves, in the spirit of meeting fire with fire.”  The thought occurs that we have our own jihadists, by these measures, in Australian politics and the media.

Barry also reprised an issue he raised after his 1978 election to Federal Parliament – “the disappearance from the Australian Archives of files about the trials and executions of many indigenes in Papua New Guinea by the Australian Army, particularly the hanging of 22 men at Higaturu in September 1943.”

“This extraordinary World War II story had been told to me in 1959 by Alfred Conlon, a consummate networker who advised both Prime Minister John Curtin and Commander-in-Chief General Sir Thomas Blamey, as head of the Army’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs (DORCA),” he said. By the way, Alf Conlon’s son, Telford, has been working with others on a biography of a man as influential as he was mysterious.

“In Papua New Guinea in 1943 and 1944, the Australian Army tried, convicted and hanged more than 100 indigenes, sometimes for murder or rape, but often for collaboration with Japanese forces. These trials and executions had occurred at the same time as action on the Kokoda Track when indigenes received very sympathetic press coverage in Australia as ‘the fuzzy-wuzzy angels’, so savage punishments, carried out in public, but unreported, were hard to explain. This sensitive subject was ignored in the five relevant volumes of The Australian Official War History ” also remarking that he “received  more hate mail after this speech than on any other issue in my career.”

…and in between all that Barry squeezed in visits to Persepolis and Isfahan pondering, as a result, the problems of Islam’s relationship with sites from antiquity.