Australia has been fortunate in the calibre of so many of those involved in the government of the early colonial establishments. It is worth mentioning Lord Sydney, whom too many glibly dismiss as being of no consequence. He had taken a decision which would have a fundamental effect on the colony. Instead of just establishing it as a military prison, he provided for a civil administration, with courts of law. To speak then of the colony as a gulag, as republican Robert Hughes does, is wrong The rule of law came to Australia from the founding of the colony in 1788. Just consider one example. An early civil action brought by convicts against a ship captain for theft was defended on the ground that at common law felons could not sue. The court required the captain to prove this, which was of course impossible since the records were in England. Can Mr. Hughes give us a similar example of litigation by prisoners in a Soviet gulag?
Lord Sydney’s decision reflected very much the views of the first Governor, Captain, later Admiral Arthur Phillip who wrote, before leaving England: "In a new country there will be no slavery and hence no slaves.” Phillip also ordered that Aborigines be treated well, and indicated that the murder of an Aborigine would be punished by hanging.
It is good that there seems to be some attempt to recognize the contribution of our first Australian Governor. A recent example was an important lecture, enhanced by a video presentation, given by a former UK High Commissioner, Sir Roger Carrick at a function at the American American Club organized by Mr. Richard Nott, the President of the NSW Branch of the Australia-Britain Society on 6 March 2007.
The lecture will be available in due course on the website of the Menzies Research Centre. The vote of thanks was appropriately moved by Her Excellency, the 37th Governor of New South Wales, Professor Marie Bashir. Her Excellency offered the professional opinion, based on an assessment of his life, that Admiral Phillip’s death was consistent with a stroke, and certainly not suicide
Since writing this, I have had the benefit of reading an extract of the indefatigable Keith Windschuttle’s essay on the subject of our early leaders which is to be published in the April 2007 edition of Quadrant. He says that many of Australia’s early colonial leaders were human rights activists “ahead of their time.” The extract was published in The Australian on 24 March, 2007(a link may be found on the ACM site.) In a featured column on the same page, which is not in the web but which may be in the Quadrant essay, Dr. Windschuttle writes: “The idea that slavery was an affront to humanity that had no place in a free land was part of the original definition of what it meant to be an Australian. Unfortunately, in today’s academic climate…very few academic historians discuss these issues…..Moreover, although NSW founder Arthur Phillip’s original anti-slavery declaration was once well known to earlier generations of students, historians today rarely mention it.”