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Nothing new in cynicism towards politicians

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Brian Matthews |  17 October 2007

Governor Hindmarsh At about this time of the year in 1837, the second year of settlement in South Australia, various Adelaide luminaries and newly emerged leaders set up what they called a Nomenclature Committee. The task of this group was to assign suitable names to youthful Adelaide's major streets and squares in order to bring not only a territorial logic to the carefully planned city, but also an appropriate dignity which would be endowed by reference to achievements, history and aspiration.

The members of the committee were Governor Hindmarsh (pictured), Judge Jeffcot, Robert Gouger, James Hurtle Fisher, John Morphett, Edward Stephens, T. Bewes Strangways, Thomas Gilbert, John Brown, Osmond Gilles and John Barton Hack.

Of this august crew, Hack was the least obviously distinguished yet most visibly dynamic; a go-getter of amazing energy; a visionary when it came to pioneering ventures; and a daring, risk-taking business man. In the years following, he would run the gamut from spectacularly successful land deals and farming to ever less lucrative enterprises like whaling, gold digging and carting. He ended his working life tied to a desk as an accountant for the railways.

It is possible his fellow important citizens had a whiff of something feckless in Hack; possible too that Hack didn't pay enough attention or assign sufficient importance to the task of naming because he was so busily focused on the opportunities unfolding in the colony's deceptively promising infancy.

Whatever the inner truths of the committee's deliberations, its actual work reveals a good deal about what must have gone on around that dignified table. Hindmarsh's name lives on in two avenues, two roads, two esplanades, a crescent, a place and one of the city's five major squares. Jeffcott is memorialised in Jeffcott Street, which becomes Jeffcott Road, a central artery of North Adelaide.

Hurtle has an avenue, three streets and another of the five squares. Lest Morphett be forgotten, there are 14 Morphett Roads, and Morphett Street is a main artery in the western half of the city. Osmond has Mount Osmond and Glen Osmond road, both en route to the city from the hills. And so on.

Hack, it would appear, was either unable or unwilling to impress himself upon his peers to quite the extent that they impressed themselves on him and on the map. Hack might have sensed some worrying signs had he not been proceeding at breakneck speed to fame and fortune.

Whatever the explanation, the family name came badly out of the nomenclature committee's work: Hack gave his middle name to a terrace on the town's furthest periphery and his family name to a couple of back streets and cul-de-sacs. But he could scarcely have expected that the family name's near invisibility in what would become the Adelaide Street Directory, was a paradigm of his own failing endeavour.

It is not easy to establish what the ordinary man and woman of early Adelaide thought about the street signs and plaques flowering around the city after the Nomenclature Committee had set the pace, but it seems fair to assume a degree of cynicism. Even then, in Anglophile Adelaide, a migrant population on the make would have turned a healthy blast of what in later years became a trademark Australian irony on such blatant, shameless monumentalising among their leading citizens.

Which is why, when in our own time the proximity of an election leads to our being confidently, even reverently, saluted by politicians on both sides as intelligent, canny and discriminating paragons of the democratic polity, we can't suppress a frisson of cynicism. And more than a frisson when political advantage is seen to be available in the facile exploitation of tragedy and loss.

It is one thing to throw money at hospitals and roads and enterprises in marginal electorates all over the country. We expect that. It is the level our political drama has sunk to; from a desperately hoped-for, intense and considered clash of views and positions to a vaudeville show of clowns, invective and show-bagging. But when reconciliation — long adamantly resisted, suddenly adopted amid wince-making talk of profound epiphanies and heart-searching — becomes a last-minute vote catcher, only the deepest, most corrosive cynicism is possible. The word 'reconciliation' does after all encompass ruined lives, family tragedies and heartbreaking losses.

It might have been a tenable position to deny its force and the urgency of its claims for action and appropriate penitence on both sides of the sad story. But it is opportunism of the crassest and most grievous kind to use the concept and its penumbra of shame and disgrace for a minute-to-midnight electoral ploy.

Another brick in the evolving, would-be fifth term monument — but already besmirched by unforgiving history and, like most disrespected monuments, the irreverence of indifferent pigeons.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is a raconteur, storyteller, public speaker and prizewinning author who lives in the Clare Valley of South Australia. He is Visiting Professor in the Europe-Australia Institute at Victoria University, Melbourne. His many books include a biography of Henry Lawson's wife, Louisa.




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Submitted comments

Another well called opinion piece Brian - sadly a 'Politician's' public profile does not look set to change.

Even though the baton will be passed to the KEV07 crew I think many ALP folk like myself find it too dispiriting for words seeing that Rudd is content to easily abandon trad ALP principles and what is right when it suits. I worry that his mission to wear the PM hat means he is happy to appease also those who simply care about mortgages, their next holiday in Bali and going to Seaworld aka the dreaded swinging Liberal voter! I recall reading a speech Rudd made concerning the importance of human rights last year that launched him into the public arena. I thought, "Great this guys got it together and will change the political landscape at last. With the woeful Gunns decision made recently - with only token impact research - then endorsed by the ALP - the reality of what the 'New Leadership' has in store is sadly - I fear - much more of the same.

That said - when Rudd is elected I only hope that he can unfurl quietly a more intelligent agenda - and wind-back the Howard epoch. Lets hope he can show his mettle and resist those knee-jerk policy calls made by interest groups, shock jocks - or the papers chasing sales and there shrill mob-mentality blog surveys ...My fingers are crossed firmly!

nic ramage 19 October 2007

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