I just went to a rather interesting public lecture about the Dismissal and the role of Sir Anthony Mason in the whole messy affair. What struck me was the sheer lack of public knowledge about the role of the High Court and, in particular, the personal interactions between Justices of the High Court and the rest of the political system. For most of its existence, the actual machine of the Commonwealth was ridiculously tight knit. For me, the Dismissal shocked people because they didn’t know that the ‘separation of powers’ between the Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary wasn’t as rigid as it is in legal folklore. At least not in Australia.
While most people know that Edmund Barton was our first Prime Minister, fewer would know who our first Chief Justice was Samuel Griffith (aided in his jurisprudence by his rocktastic beard). When pushed, many people could name every Prime Minister of Australia. Significantly fewer could name all of our CJs.
I suspect the main reason for this is what a short cultural memory we have in Australia. We have a population that, as a whole, is more familiar with European history than it is with its own. But we also have a population that shames cultural heritage. I only ever hear ‘Australian’ used to signify people or products (as in: ‘comes from the geographical region known as Australia… or New Zealand’). Unaustralian, on the other hand, I hear more frequently as a character trait. This is different to other countries: ‘It’s just not British’ means something more than ‘It’s just from somewhere else’.
In this, ‘Australian’ (as a character) is defined by its privative, just as cold is the absence of heat, ‘Australian’ is the residue of not being ‘Unaustralian’.
We don’t celebrate being Australian and, as such, don’t celebrate its history. We get worried when other people do: Indigenous Australians of mixed heritage are marginalised in the mainstream press for identifying with the culture of their ancestors: ‘Why not focus on the parts of your heritage which aren’t Indigenous Australians?’ Muslims are always suspected of wanting their traditional laws to be respected, though our minds don’t implode from hypocrisy when marriage equality campaigns are rejected for not following the traditional Christian model…
So I’m going to change that. At least, I’m going to do my part to change it. After all, I intend to be the trouble I want to see in the world…
Over a series of short posts, I’m going to try to convey to you why you should get super excited about Australia’s Chief Justices (particularly Isaac Isaacs and Owen Dixon). I’ll schedule them for afternoons so you can enjoy them during a lunch break or whatever. With eleven former Chief Justices (and I won’t include the Futurama-loving current Chief Justice).