Jan Palach RIP

Jan Palach

Memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, and millions of other victims of communism. Picture taken in Wenceslas Square, Prague, 12 August 2009

Palach, followed by Zajic a month later, burnt himself to death in January 1969 in protest against the 1968 Soviet invasion to crush the Prague Spring.

There is so much to see in this beautiful city that I have not done as much political history tourism as I would have liked, but I did take a photo of this memorial to two brave young men.

Brian Naylor and dozens of others, RIP

When Victorian Premier John Brumby warned last Friday that Saturday could be the ‘worst day in the state’s history’ I thought he might be exaggerating. Late on Saturday, even after Melbourne has experienced a record 46 degrees, I still thought that might have been the case. On Ash Wednesday in 1983, when Melbourne’s suburbs were full of smoke, city-dwellers knew that things were seriously wrong. Though on Saturday afternoon it looked like there was more haze than usual, the air did not smell.

But as all media have been reporting, Brumby was right. Among the 108 confirmed dead as of this morning is Brian Naylor, who read the Channel Nine news for twenty years from 1978, in the years when Nine news dominated the ratings. Almost everyone who lived in Melbourne at that time would have received part of their news from Naylor, who had the sober, sensible and reliable demeanour we prefer in newsreaders, but could also handle the touching or quirky stories that Nine often liked to finish with.

He ended each broadcast with ‘may your news be good news, and goodnight’. It’s so sad that he ended his life as part of a very bad news story, for so many people.

Brian Naylor and dozens of others, RIP.

Peter Karmel, RIP

Peter Karmel, who died this week, was one of the most distinguished Australian educational leaders of the second half of the twentieth century.

He was perhaps best known for his report on schools in 1973 for the Whitlam government. Disputes still alive today have their origins in decisions taken following that report, from recurrent federal grants to state schools to graded funding to private schools. The Karmel report recommended funding based on the needs of the school, which survived until the Howard government replaced it with a funding formula (at least until it broke down from so many exceptions) based on the income of parents. However, the idea that for private schools – though not for public schools – grants should be adjusted based on some measure of income or wealth has survived.

His main career, however, was in universities. He was Vice-Chancellor of two, Flinders and the ANU, and served in the late 1970s and early 1980s as chair of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, an intermediary agency between the universities and colleges of advanced education and the government. Such bodies fell out of favour during the previous Labor government, though Karmel and others continued to call for their restoration.
Continue reading “Peter Karmel, RIP”

Conor Cruise O’Brien, RIP

The Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died last week aged 91, had a very varied career, straddling as his Times obituary says ‘diplomacy, politics, historical scholarship, literature and journalism’.

It was the last three that attracted me, though the first two informed them. I probably first came across him via his introduction to the Penguin edition of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, though I can remember also liking his mid-1980s book on Israel, The Seige, after which in some circles he was known as Conor Cruise O’Zion. From the Times obituary, he wrote it for much the same reason I read it, the influence of Jewish friends. Political views are usually part biography.

In 1994 I interviewed him for Policy, during my first stint as editor. We mostly talked about nationalism, which nearly 15 years on I fear may have annoyed him; presumably he was hoping to publicise his book The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke, which had recently come out in paperback. Re-reading the interview, he knew a surprising amount about Australia, commenting on the history of Catholic-Protestant relations here and praising Noel Pearson.

It’s probably nearly as long ago as that interview since I read O’Brien, and I felt embarrassed as I read the obituaries that I could not recall a single idea, insight or piece of information that I could attribute to his writings. Perhaps they are there in my memory, unattributed. But on dipping into The Great Melody, it’s clear that he was one of those writers with the talent to make reading its own reward.

Conor Cruise O’Brien, RIP.

Max Teichmann, RIP

In his Weekend Australian column, Christopher Pearson reports the death of Max Teichmann. In recent years, Teichmann had been a regular at the Catholic paleocon magazine News Weekly. But when I took Teichmann’s Monash University subject on populism a very large number of years ago he was still a man of the left.

As Gerard Henderson’s amazing files record, this passage by Teichmann on the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government included the Australian left’s characteristic hyperbolic style:

At the beginning of 1932 Germany was a Weimar Republic semi-democracy. By the end of 1933 she was a dictatorship. … But in terms of a narrow, legalistic interpretation of the German constitution, Hindenburg’s action appeared justified. Within eight months Adolf Hitler was to be prime minister of Germany. ….

The similarities between Germany 1932 and Australia 1975 do not end there. The Nazis gained support by exploiting people’s fears about inflation and unemployment; by promising all things to all men, in terms so vague so as to defy analysis; by kicking the communist can; by posing as defenders of the constitution and of law and order, while busily subverting all these things.

In my experience, Teichmann was a likeable character but a long way from being a model professional academic. Our lectures were straight after lunch, which Teichmann sometimes appeared to have spent at the bar in the university staff club. The lectures were often rambling. But my most vivid memory of him is from the populism exam. He came to see us just before we started. ‘You’d have to die in the exam to fail this one,’ he assured us. He wasn’t going to meet too many academic standards, and we didn’t have to either.

Max Teichmann, RIP.

Update: The Age’s obituary.

The Australian Democrats, RIP

Today the Democrat Senators gave their last speeches, bringing their party’s 31-year parliamentary history to an end. That makes me feel rather old, as I attended one of the first meetings that led to their creation after Don Chipp left the the Liberals in March 1977 (in the days when it was Malcolm Fraser being denounced for abandoning small-l liberalism).

The ‘Committee of Concerned Citizens’ organised a meeting on 9 May 1977 in the Melbourne Town Hall. There were 4,000 people there, including me and my Dad (I was 11), with many more turned away. According to John Warhurst’s book Keeping the Bastards Honest, at the end of the evening Chipp declared himself committed to a new party. I can’t quite remember what I thought of it all, though obviously I was not persuaded to take the micro-party route.

While they won seats up until the 2001 election, the Democrats never found a stable constituency among the ‘concerned’ middle class. The Australian Election Survey questions on which party respondents voted for at the most recent and at the previous election always showed a lot of churn among Democrat voters. People would vote for them, but vote for someone else next time. But until 2004, they always picked up enough of the stray disgruntled vote to win seats.

The 2007 AES suggests that the vast majority of defecting 2004 Democrat voters went to Labor and the Greens, confirming that the party that had been born centrist died leftist. With Labor and Liberal fighting over the middle ground, there was no electoral room for a centre party between them.

Despite their wacky policies on some issues (eg higher education) I’m sorry to see the Democrats go. Politics is less a choice between good and bad than between better and worse, and the Democrats are better than the Greens, Family First, or that no pokies guy from South Australia.

The Australian Democrats, RIP.

Paddy McGuinness, RIP

By the time I first met Paddy McGuinness, who died yesterday, his persona was much as I would have expected from the columns I had read in The Australian and then the SMH: rather gruff, given to sweeping pronouncements, but showing a very wide range of interests. This was the mid-1990s; I found our few conversations awkward. His uncommunicative style spilled over into the way he edited Quadrant. You knew your submission had been accepted if it appeared as an article in the magazine, you knew it had been rejected if after a few months there was still no sign of it. Apart from that, total silence.

While I never clicked with Paddy, he did seem to have a talent for friendship cutting across journalism, intellectual life, politics and the arts. This went back to the 1950s when he was part of the Sydney Push. According to Anne Coombs’ book on the Push, Paddy had his first contact with this group aged just twelve, having met some of its members at a science fiction conference. She quotes him as saying that he underwent the ‘usual [sic] adolescent progression from Catholicism to Marxism’ before coming to social democratic views. While at Sydney Uni studying economics he was involved in starting the ALP Club, a split from the Labor Club, which had become a front for the Communist Party. An early swipe at the radical left, the target of much of his subsequent commentary.

From there, Paddy was someone who really did have the many careers of pop sociology: Continue reading “Paddy McGuinness, RIP”

The Bulletin, RIP

The Bulletin is to join the the magazine graveyard in my spare room, if I can find a copy of its last issue, supposedly out today (I checked three newsagents, with no sign of it). Its weekly sales had dropped below 60,000, down from 100,000 in the mid-1990s.

The Bulletin hasn’t had a niche for a long time now. While it still occasionally broke stories, on a week-by-week basis it wasn’t providing much you could not find more promptly and at lower cost in the newspapers. I haven’t bought it on a regular basis for at least 15 years.

But I am still sorry to see it go. Handed-down copies from my grandfather’s subscription in the late 1970s and early 1980s were an important part of my political education. And it provided some of my earliest mainstream media coverage. In 1995, they ran a cover story under the title ‘Young, bright and right’,with a photo of me, John Brogden, Marise Payne and a bust of Sir Robert Menzies. The NSW Young Liberals used this cover in their promotional materials, and for years afterwards I’d meet Young Liberals in Sydney who knew of me via that cover.

So The Bulletin, RIP. (And wasn’t Crikey tacky in putting ‘The Bulletin does a Ledger’ in their subject header today?)

Laissez Faire Books, RIP

It’s not yet mentioned on their website, but an e-mail over the weekend announced that libertarian bookseller Laissez Faire Books is closing down. As they explain it:

The book market has changed tremendously over the past 30+ years, and it has gotten harder and harder for a small niche bookseller to cover expenses. I suppose the market has spoken.

And those who advocate the market must accept its verdict. But I am sorry to see Laissez Faire books go. In my twenties (and maybe earlier, I can’t remember now) I was an enthusiastic Laissez Faire customer. I wasn’t ideologically (or perhaps nearly as importantly, temperamentally) inclined to sign up to all their enthusiasms, especially for Ayn Rand, but better Friedman, Hayek, Sowell et al. than the swooning over the state of much of the Australian intelligentsia.

Though I am sorry to see Laissez Faire close, I am one of the reasons they are going. Even when a Laissez Faire email alerted me to a new book I wanted, I would usually end up buying it from Amazon. Once, Laissez Faire was the only place I could locate many libertarian books, but Amazon caters to just about every niche market. After taking into account the cheaper postage when buying several books at once, Amazon was usually the less expensive option too.

So Laissez Faire have been caught up in the creative destruction of their ideology. Amazon does a great job of making libertarian books accessible, but it is has helped wipe out a specialist libertarian bookseller in the process.

Milton Friedman, RIP

It’s turning into a bad few weeks for icons of the free-market cause. First Ralph Harris dies and now Milton Friedman, at the age of 94. I was lucky enough to meet Harris once, but though I never came face-to-face with Friedman he had an enormous influence on my life.

This influence started by the lucky misfortune of the hardback version of his book Free to Choose not selling as well as his publishers may have hoped. And so it ended up in a remainders bookstore in Swanston St, where I found it in the months before I was about to start studying economics at school. I’d never heard of him, but it said on the cover (I have it next to me as I write) ‘Nobel Prize Winner for Economics 1976’. My teenage brain leapt to the conclusion that this man would help me do better in my economics subject.

That assessment was wrong. Free-market economics hadn’t made it to the Victorian school system in 1982. But I found its clear explanation of how markets worked fascinating and enlightening. I had to know more about this subject, and tracked down other books by Friedman, then Hayek, then (I admit it, briefly) Rand and others. The following year I saw a newspaper article about a book with a title very similar to Friedman’s, Free to Shop. In my enthusiasm for free markets, shop trading hours had become a bit of a cause. The Victorian government was persecuting Caulfield hardware store owner Frank Penhalluriack for the appalling crime of opening his shop on Sundays. He eventually went to jail for it. Free to Shop , which set out the case for deregulating trading hours, was published by an organisation I wasn’t yet aware of, The Centre for Independent Studies, but I sent off for it – and so my long association with the CIS began.

In American libertarian circles, Friedman was sometimes affectionately referred to as ‘Uncle Milton’. While few people would classify themselves as ‘Friedmanites’, for many people he played the role he had in my life – a wise, avuncular figure guiding us into a much bigger set of ideas and influences. He could do this because his prose and his explanations were so clear. Like many good writers, he can be read on two levels. Re-reading him later in life I could see implicit references to and debates with other thinkers in what he was saying. But these don’t clutter the text and so he made perfect sense to a sixteen year old. As recent interviews suggest, he was still lucid into his nineties. I’ve no doubt that his clarity will survive him and influence people born long after he died.

Milton Friedman, RIP.