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Reflections on reflections: Australian public policy, history and institutions

By Sean Jacobs - posted Wednesday, 12 July 2017

It has been just over a year since Peter Varghese, outgoing Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), delivered his 'graduate lecture' to Australia's next round of aspiring international civil servants.

Titled 'reflections on a most fortunate public life', it appealed to me both as a former Canberra graduate at the Prime Minister's Department, and as a young professional working closely with DFAT during my early years in the South Pacific.

As someone with an instinctively conservative tilt, however, I found most appealing Varghese's emphasis on Australia's institutions – 'the bedrock of our society' – and his focus on linking policy with history.


It's a keen observation at a time when discussions on reform and Australian public policy are not only one-dimensional and unreflective but polarised, especially on core questions of national character and identity. 'Transformational reform is getting harder and harder,' Varghese laments, 'cramped by the press of media scrutiny, the distorted prism of social media, and the amplification of complaint from those whose interests are adversely affected.'

From rising federal debt to energy costs, it's clear the national policymaking agenda needs to be accompanied by vigilance and sound principles. But, as Varghese notes, it also requires 'a deep and broad understanding of our country and its history'.

Indeed, it's a great point but I fear not one junior civil servants, or all young Australians, properly internalise. I doubt, for example, many of the young professionals listening to Varghese's speech that day would quite 'get' the adapted speech title from A.B. Facey's A Fortunate Life – a distinctly turn of the century Australian autobiography of adversity, world war, triumph and heartbreak.

Granted, to not know such inferences is not exactly unpatriotic. But the wider and supposedly 'learned' enthusiasms young policy advisers find themselves exposed to fails to go near or even plug such heritage – we need to become a republic, we have a lousy image in Asia, we don't learn enough languages, our flag needs to change, Anzacs are no longer relevant, Australia Day is 'invasion day' and, in diplomatic circles, we need to open new Australian embassies wherever we possibly can. The practical lesson recently offered by Yassmin Abdel-Magied also dimly exposes the professional endorsement in store for young professionals not in promoting but attacking our nation's deep national symbols.

In returning to Varghese's suggestion, however, what would 'a deep and broad understanding of our country and its history' reveal?

I'd suggest a good starting point is our sturdy institutions – the rule of law and the Westminster system – transplanted from cold wet islands in the North Atlantic but perfectly fused onto Australian soil and directed by free and enterprising Australians throughout generations. 'In the public imagination institutions are seen as belonging to the past and a repository of stuffy traditions,' reflected Varghese. 'In truth, institutions are fragile living organisms, easily weakened and very hard to repair.'


A deep understanding of our country would show that, literally from Arthur Phillip's arrival, the rule of law applied regardless of race or privilege. There are a few tough but not widely known examples of this. In 1788, amid a government settlement suffering from near starvation, the first convict was hanged for stealing. A year later six marines were hanged for the same offence, sending a clear message that the rule of law applied 'across the board' regardless of social connection or occupation. Within a few years the same message was received by anyone thinking that, because of a victim's skin colour, a sentence could be any different. In 1797, for example, the first white man – John Kirby – was hanged for killing an Aborigine. A few decades later an appalled George Gipps, the Governor of New South Wales, ordered a retrial of the perpetrators of the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre. The offenders were sentenced and hanged.

A broader understanding of our country, especially when looking to Asia, would find further value in our heritage within the rule of law. For example, in searching for misguided analogies of a racist Australian past, one often finds the 1861 Anti-Chinese riot at Lambing Flat, where 3000 miners rampaged through terrified Chinese gold mining camps in response to the rejection of an anti-Chinese immigration bill in the New South Wales legislature. But police and military enforcements deployed to crush the belligerents and restore law and order. While this may seem unremarkable the ultimate example is using state power to crush race riots and not enforce them. The outcome at Lambing Flat, like the judicial result at Myall Creek, is an early example that the rule of law would not be selectively applied based on race – an important distinguishing feature of where Australia was heading and the nation it would become.

In continuing Australia's early reception in Asia, a deeper understanding of our country would, I sense, halt revolving misty-eyed calls for 'change' to become a republic. The universal appeal of the Crown, for example, is not bound up in 'identity' and 'coming of age' but in its symbols of tradition and stability which, as any future diplomat should know, serve as totems across cultures.

Ultimately, these small appreciations of Australian history don't always invite direct policy prescription. But they do provide future diplomats, and all Australians, a moment of pause before being overly prescriptive in directing outcomes, adding to the roster of proposed referendums, believing that ideas have not been tried before or, quite simply, failing to understand the context and circumstances that explain why things are the way they are. Varghese is commended not just for his service but reminding us of these things.

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About the Author

Sean Jacobs is a former public servant, political adviser and international aid worker. He currently lives in Brisbane.

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