Two stories caught my attention recently. One was an extraordinary claim by Malcolm Turnbull that Australia under the British was a gulag, which is demonstrably false and a slander on that good man, Captain Arthur Phillip. The other was a story headlined, “Scandal hits Argentina poll.” This summed up Annabelle McDonald‘s report in The Australian’s report on 21 July, 2007 on yet another sorry story about this South American nation. The two themes are very much related, as I shall endeavour to show.
The Argentinean report was that just as the first lady Senator Cristina Fernandez launched her bid for the presidency the day before, a fresh corruption scandal hit the centre-left Government. Two ministers in the government of Senator Fernandez’ husband, President Nestor Kirchner, were under a cloud. The Defence Minister Nilda Garre was to be questioned over her alleged role in possible tax evasion over government weapons sales. And the Federal Court ordered the seizure of the personal assets of the disgraced Economy Minister Felisa Miceli who had been forced to resign in relation to accusations of corruption. $US64,000 ($A 73,000) had been found in her parliamentary office bathroom.
The candidature of the President’s wife is seen as an attempt to keep the Presidency in the Kirchner family, although the president can stand for one more term. [ Corrected, see comment 3 below ]
So how does the Argentine situation relate to Mr. Turnbull’s assertion that Governor Arthur Philip was the commandant of a Gulag, that is, a Soviet or indeed Nazi style concentration camp? Before answering that, let me make one point about Australia and Argentina, both of which were settled by European powers.
When we federated in 1901, Australia and Argentina were the world’s richest countries on a per capita basis. Today Australia remains one of the world’s richest countries. She has always been a democracy and has played a significant role in the defence of freedom and democracy in the world. She lost more men in the First World War than the United States of America. For most of both wars, Argentina was a neutral. Argentina has endured terrible dictatorships, she is the only country to fall from the first world to the third, and her armed forces have been notable mainly in interfering in politics and snuffing out the people’s freedoms.
Now why is this so? A former economics minister in the Menem government spoke about this on an ABC’s Four Corners programme in 2002. He said the two countries were similar but with one important difference: “Australia has British institutions. If Argentina had such strong institutions she would be like Australia in ten or twenty years”: The Twilight of The Elites, 2003, pp 42-45.
The difference in our two countries is not the result of chance. It flows from the fact that we had the good luck to be settled by Britain, who brought to this country from the very moment of the foundation of the colony in 1788, the precious institution of the rule of law along with the Crown. The British soon gave us self government under the Westminster system. Rather than opposing Federation, they proposed it first. They facilitated it when we decided it was time. They accorded us independence the very moment we asked for it.
So I was surprised to read that Mr. Malcolm Turnbull, the Environment and Water Resources Minister has said that “It is hard to believe … in our prosperous country, that we were once a gulag, a gulag of the southern seas, a hell on earth." According to a report in the West Australian of 1 August, 2007, Mr Turnbull announced that eight convict sites on the National Heritage List would form part of a bid for world heritage recognition of Australia’s convict past.
We suspect that Mr. Turnbull has come to the entirely mistaken conclusion that the colony was a gulag from his republican uncle, Robert Hughes. As we have said several times in this column, and most recently on 27 March, 2007, to speak then of the colony as a gulag, as republican Robert Hughes does, is completely wrong wrong. The Soviet Gulags were the most brutal lawless concentration camps for political prisoners. Even under the broadest definition, few convicts sent to Australia could be called political prisoners. More importantly, the British brought the rule of law to Australia from the very foundation of the colony in 1788. The Governor, Captain Phillips came with a Charter of Justice, which unlike the provisions of the Soviet Constitution, was actually applied. To say Australia was a gulag is a terrible defamation of that great man.
Just consider one example. A civil action very early in the life of the colony was brought by convicts against a ship captain for theft. The captain was defended on the ground that at common law felons could not sue. The court required the captain to prove that the complainants were indeed felons. This he could not, because the records were in England. The action was allowed to proceed. Can Mr. Hughes or Mr. Turnbull give us a similar example of litigation by prisoners in a Soviet or Nazi gulag, particularly one where the Soviet or Nazi judges upheld the prisoners’ assertions?
Of course they can’t. The penal colony of New South Wales was one of the most successful experiments in criminal rehabilitation the world has ever seen. The rate of recidivism, or return to crime, was extraordinarily low, as far as we can tell.
The slander on Phillip and the British that New South Wales can be equated with a Soviet or Nazi gulag should be withdrawn before it is taught in the schools – if it is not being presented as the truth