Definitely Limericks by Rory Ewins

Australian History & Politics

One of my areas of limerick writing has been a series of limericks about Australian history and politics, including political biography. Rather than bury them in other pages, I thought I’d put them on display here.

As Governor Phillip traversed
Sydney Harbour, he doubtless conversed
With his fellows, “So what
Should we label that lot?”
“Aborigines. They were here first.”

Governor Arthur Phillip sailed into Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour) to found the colony of New South Wales in January 1788. Not everyone was thrilled, either onboard or off.

“Me and Governor Hunter ain’t close,”
Says the man he’s replaced, Francis Grose.
“I was boss; now it’s him.
Makes it harder to skim
Off the cream.” Frankly, Frank looks morose.

The first governor of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, left the colony after only a few years, handing over control in 1792 to Major Francis Grose (1758–1814) until a second governor could arrive. Grose undid much of Phillip’s work, instituting military rule, relaxing controls on alcohol, and abandoning the policy of equal rations for all by reducing them for convicts alone. Although there’s no evidence that he feathered his own nest, he made generous land grants to officers, turning away from collective farming. By the time Captain John Hunter arrived in 1794 to take up the governorship, the colony was a hotbed of drunkenness, gambling and crime.

Grose went on to serve in Gibraltar and Ireland, before dying in England at the age of 56. The Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney is named after him.

“New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land? Mate,
There’s no land-bridge between ’em. You wait.”
“You were right, Bass: all water.”
“Well, Flinders, we oughter
Get naming. Your island, my strait.”

Matthew Flinders and George Bass confirmed Bass’s theory that a strait separated the mainland of New Holland (the eastern half of which was at the time all New South Wales) from Van Diemen’s Land when they circumnavigated the latter in the sloop Norfolk in 1798. On Flinders’ recommendation, the strait was named after his friend, first as Bass’s Straits, then Basses Strait, and later Bass Strait. Its largest island, a remnant of the land-bridge submerged 8,000 years ago after the end of the last ice age, was renamed after Flinders (from Great Island) a few years later by NSW Governor Philip Gidley King. Tasmanians nowadays usually call it simply Flinders rather than Flinders Island.

“Captain Bligh! Had enough of you, chum!”
Clapped in irons, the man’s looking glum.
Can it be? Coup d’état?
The Corps head to a bar:
Their rebellion’s objective was rum.

The Rum Rebellion of 1808 was Australia’s only coup d’état, staged twenty years to the day after the settlement of Sydney. Governor William Bligh (yes, he of the Bounty) made himself unpopular with locals by attempting to clean up the town’s illicit rum trade, which was controlled by the “Rum Corps” of elite military men, and by blocking the efforts of local entrepreneurs to control trade and acquire land in the colony. Four hundred troops marched to Government House to depose him. After spending most of 1808 under house arrest, Bligh sailed to Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land in an attempt to win support, which wasn’t forthcoming. He spent the next year effectively imprisoned on his ship off Hobart, which was pretty rough for a bloke who had already spent several weeks adrift in an open boat after the mutiny on HMS Bounty.

In 1810, Bligh (1754–1817) received word that the British Foreign Office had declared the rebellion a mutiny, thus exonerating him. He saw out the rest of his days in the UK.

The judge on the bench had his way,
So you’re headed for Botany Bay.
New South Wales is a gaol
That can make a heart fail
Say goodbye to your life, not g’day.

If you’re thinking of breaking apart
Heavy rocks into fragments, the art
Is to strike them a blow
With a hammer, or so
Said the convicts, who knew it by heart.

The convict was ashen and grey;
He was due for a lashin’ that day,
And a dozen, he knew,
Could be, once they were through,
Twenty-five here in Botany Bay.

The standard punishment of twenty-five lashes from the cat-o’-nine-tails (a whip with nine knotted cords) was sarcastically called a dozen by the convicts of New South Wales. Offenders often received more, cutting the flesh from their backs and even leaving bones exposed.

They’re convicts, poor blokes, and it’s plain
That their sentence is causin’ ’em pain.
The reason they’re screamin’s
They’re bound for Van Diemen’s
Land, never to leave it again.

In Australia, the term convict implies not a convicted prisoner in general but those transported there from Britain and Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The second convict colony of Van Diemen’s Land became, from the 1830s to the 1850s, the main penal colony in Australia, receiving about 40% of all convicts sent there. Its name became synonymous with the convict system itself, and was used to strike fear into the underclasses of Britain. Renamed Tasmania after its abolition of transportation in 1853, it is now one of Australia’s six federal states and the best place to see the historical traces of convict life. The “stain” of convict ancestry (as it was known) lingered over the island’s small population for generations, until attitudes relaxed in the latter 20th century.

I grew up in an island-wide gaol
Called Van Diemen’s Land, where, without fail,
Convicts suffered and bled.
Some escaped and then fled
To the bush, as is told in Clarke’s tale.

Luckily, I grew up over a century after the transportation of convicts from Britain to Van Diemen’s Land had ended and its name was changed to Tasmania. The most famous story of its convict days, For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke, was first published in serial form from 1870 to 1872. Clarke painted a grim picture of murder, floggings, escape and even cannibalism, although modern historians say that he exaggerated the penal colony’s horrors.

In this factory, women can’t shirk
From hard labour; can’t chatter or lurk
In their cells: it’s a gaol.
Vandemonian male
Convicts, scatter: it’s female work.

Female factories were workhouses for convict women in the penal settlements of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (whose residents called themselves Vandemonians), primarily for the production of textiles. Although they were effectively gaols, and did contain cells (including for solitary confinement), factories were places where people could come and go: some free women worked in them, and many of the convict women working in them had to look for accommodation elsewhere, as space was limited. Women were often forced to procure lodgings with sexual services, even though many had no prior record of prostitution, which wasn’t a transportable offence in Britain. Convict men could also visit factories, often in search of a bride—convict marriage was encouraged in order to increase the population. It’s estimated that between one in seven and one in five Australians have a convict ancestor who worked in a female factory.

Aboriginal Tasmanians’ small
Population size took a sharp fall
At the hands of disease
And the British, but please
Don’t describe them as gone—they’re not all.

When the British colonised Van Diemen’s Land, there were between three and fifteen thousand Palawa (or Pakana) people living on the island, who had arrived forty thousand years earlier and had been isolated from the outside world for eight thousand years. Introduced diseases, warfare and violence at the hands of settlers drastically reduced their numbers in the early nineteenth century, until only a relative handful survived, moved by British authorities from camp to camp around the colony.

According to popular belief, the last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian, Truganini, died in 1876, although it has been established that there were others who outlived her; but the concept of “full-blooded” is problematic in that it accepts nineteenth-century ideas about racial purity and allowed the myth of Tasmanian Aboriginal extinction to take root. There are still many descendants today who identify as Tasmanian Aborigines—possibly more than there were before the British arrived (by 2016 estimates, from 6,000 to over 23,000).

You belittle me, mate, but I’m glad
To be known as a currency lad:
Bein’ born in this place
Ain’t a cause for disgrace—
Bein’ shipped out from Britain’s what’s bad.

In the early years of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, coins of various countries, popularly known as currency, circulated alongside English gold pieces, known as sterling. By the 1820s, British immigrants to the colonies had begun referring to native-born Australians dismissively as currency lads and currency lasses, but their targets began wearing the terms as badges of honour. Both have stayed firmly in the nineteenth century.

Australia’s landscape abounds
With regions and islands and towns
Named for governors. Sing
Of the Hunter, Bourke, King
Island, Gippsland, and dear Darling Downs!

The list of colonial governors of New South Wales, which in the early years of Australia constituted the entire eastern half of the continent, will look familiar even to a history-deprived Aussie. As well as Captain Arthur Phillip (Phillip Island south of Melbourne), we had Captain John Hunter (the Hunter Valley region or “the Hunter”), Captain Philip Gidley King (King Island in Bass Strait), Major-General Lachlan Macquarie (Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania and Macquarie Island south of it), Major-General Sir Thomas Brisbane (the city of Brisbane), Lieutenant-General Ralph Darling (the Darling Downs region of southern Queensland), Major-General Sir Richard Bourke (the NSW town of Bourke), Sir George Gipps (the region of Gippsland in southeastern Victoria), Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy (Fitzroy Falls in the NSW southern highlands), and Sir William Thomas Denison (the Queensland town of Port Denison).

Denison was governor when the colony gained self-government in 1855 and the position became a ceremonial one, and by then much of Australia had been explored and settled, so governors after him don’t tend to be marked on the map. Sir John Young, Governor-in-Chief from 1861–67, snuck in under the wire with the town of Young in southern NSW.

Notable by his absence is the colony’s fourth governor Captain William Bligh, who was booted out of NSW during the Rum Rebellion of 1808, Australia’s only coup d’état. He eventually had a Sydney suburb named after him in 1988, possibly by fans of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the man in the 1984 film The Bounty.

The governor said, “It is plain
That this drongo is wrong in the brain.
Is he Arthur or Martha?
I reckon Macarthur
Don’t know. He’s confused—or insane.”

Australians will say about someone who’s always confused that he or she doesn’t know if he’s (or she’s) Arthur or Martha, unless they’re speakin’ real informal and say that he or she “don’t know”.

John Macarthur (1767–1834) was an influential early figure New South Wales. As pioneer of the Merino wool industry, he became the richest man in the colony, and was also the instigator of the Rum Rebellion of 1808, a military coup against Governor William Bligh. Later in life he served in the NSW Legislative Council until he was removed, two years before his death, upon being declared a lunatic by Governor Richard Bourke. For many years he was depicted on the Australian two dollar note, which failed to highlight this detail.

In the gold rush, men galloped flat chat
Up to Bendigo, post-Ballarat:
Victoria’s boomtowns,
There’s-plenty-o’-room towns,
More-gold-to-consume towns an’ that.

Today, the inland cities of Ballarat and Bendigo are the third- and fourth-largest in Victoria, Australia. In July 1851, Victoria’s gold rush began in the area around Ballarat; by November, it had spread to Bendigo. The discovery of the goldfields transformed the colony and saw the population of Australia triple within twenty years. It also led to one of the country’s most significant worker rebellions at the Eureka Stockade.

At Victoria’s Eureka Stockade,
Rebels hoisted the flag they had made—
Prussian blue with white cross,
Starry points. Any boss
Who encounters it now feels afraid.

The Eureka flag, flown by rebel gold miners at the Battle of the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat on 3 December 1854 at the end of three years of political revolt, became a potent symbol of Australian trade unionism and republicanism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The flag flies permanently over the Melbourne Trades Hall and the Ballarat Trades Hall. It features a stylised Southern Cross, with stars at each point of the horizontal and vertical arms of a white cross and a larger star in its centre.

In 2016 it was incorporated into the official logo of the Australia First Party, an act of symbolic co-option reminiscent of other far-right parties around the world.

When next at a local election,
Just watch how they stop the detection
Of names on each vote
(Or each ballot); then note
That Australia devised this protection.

Victoria and South Australia were the first representative democracies to introduce the secret ballot (in 1856), which came to be known as the Australian ballot.

Though in power for only six days,
Dawson’s record’s but one of the ways
In which Aussies remember
’im: his term that December
Was the first Labor government. Praise!

Anderson Dawson (b. Andrew Dawson, 1863–1910) holds the ignominous position of being dead last by time in office of Australia’s elected heads of state, federal and colonial government to date: he governed the Colony of Queensland in the first week of December 1899, just before Australian federation. Although three 20th-century state premiers had even shorter terms in office (like George Fuller, who was NSW premier in 1921 for seven hours), all of them had other lengthier terms as well.

Dawson’s short-lived government, however, was significant in another way: it was the first ALP government in Australia—and the first parliamentary labour party government anywhere in the world.

Dawson won a seat in the new Australian parliament in 1901, and was Minister for Defence in the first federal Labor government under Chris Watson in 1904 (whose government lasted only four months—I detect a pattern).

“Federation,” proclaimed Henry Parkes,
“Will preserve us from tariffs and sharks.”
“Mate, we’re still unconvinced.
Like the beard, but.” Parkes winced.
“Look, youse blokes. Let’s just do it for larks.”

The Federation of the Australian colonies was promoted tirelessly in the late 19th century by one man in particular: Sir Henry Parkes (1815–1896), who was Premier of News South Wales five times from 1872 to 1891. Parkes first proposed the formation of a Federal Council in 1867, and did so again in 1880. Five years later, the UK Parliament passed a law enabling the Federal Council of Australasia to meet the following year. Fiji took part at first, but New Zealand and New South Wales declined to join.

Parkes put the case for Federation to the NSW public in his “Tenterfield Oration” of 1889, focussing on the benefits of free trade and a stronger army, which added serious momentum to negotiations. After more conventions, many more meetings of the Council, and a series of referendums between 1898 and 1900, six of the Australasian colonies voted to join the Commonwealth of Australia, which duly became a country on 1 January 1901.

Sadly, the “Father of Federation” didn’t live to see it, but his mighty bearded ghost no doubt looked on approvingly.

We’ve had heaps of prime ministers, startin’
With Australia’s first, Edmund Barton.
Unlike Washington, though,
He’s unlikely to show
Up in homes on a cereal carton.

America loves its first president, as a character in movies and TV series, as a print to hang on the wall, and as a familiar face on food packaging. Yes, there was once a brand of corn flakes called Washington’s Crisps with his picture on the box. Most Aussies wouldn’t recognise Sir Edmund “Toby” Barton, though, if you put him on a cereal box—even though one of the country’s leading breakfast brands is called Uncle Tobys. But the prominent campaigner for federation is still remembered as our first prime minister. Barton (1849–1920) left parliament in 1903 after a health scare to take up a seat on the High Court, where he served for the rest of his life. One of Canberra’s first suburbs was named for him a few years after his death.

Perhaps it’s fortunate that few know much about him today, because Barton secured his first federal election victory by campaigning on the colonial White Australia policies of the late 19th century. His Immigration Restriction Act 1901 excluded virtually all non-Europeans from entering the country until its repeal in 1959, giving border officials the power to prevent anyone from landing by making them take a 50-word dictation test in a European language of the official’s choice.

Maybe they could stick Toby’s mug on a dartboard.

List Australia’s prime ministers? Look,
Ain’t got time to recite a whole book
About whiskered blokes’ tenure.
Get back to me when ya
Heard o’ Deakin and Fisher and Cook.

The first years of the Commonwealth of Australia before the Great War saw prime ministers come and go relatively quickly, with two serving more than once. Protectionist Party and later Liberal Party leader Alfred Deakin (1856–1919, bearded) was our second prime minister (after Edmund Barton, clean-shaven) and served three times, from 1903–04, 1905–08 and 1909–10. Labor’s Andrew Fisher (1862–1928, moustached) alternated with him in 1908–09 and 1910–13, and then with Liberal leader Joseph Cook (1860–1947, bearded) who was prime minister from 1913–14; by Fisher’s third term from 1914–15, the world was at war. Two shorter-lived prime ministers round out the picture: Labor’s Chris Watson (born Johan Cristian Tanck, 1867–1941, beard), PM for 113 days in 1904; and the Free Trade Party’s George Reid (1845–1918, moustache), PM for almost a year from 1904–05. None of them are remembered much today except by residents of Canberra, where many of the suburbs are named after ex-prime ministers, including all of these.

World War One, the Great War, and its rigours,
Saw nine million buried; it figures
That Anzac troops wrenched
From their lives and entrenched
In the mud of the Somme got called diggers.

Trench warfare gave the Anzac troops this nickname, which has since become a general term for any Australian or New Zealand soldier or veteran. Almost two thirds of the Australians who fought in the Battle of the Somme between 1 July and 18 November 1916 became casualties: 58,500 men, including 16,000 dead. New Zealand lost more than 2,100 men there, with nearly 6,000 wounded.

The Anzacs fought bravely, they say,
In Gallipoli, even though they
Faced a ludicrous task,
So it’s not much to ask
To remember them on their own Day.

The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or Anzacs, played a significant role in the ill-conceived Gallipoli campaign against Turkey in World War One, suffering heavy casualties alongside the British. Over time the name has been applied to other Australasian soldiers or diggers serving in wartime, all of whom are remembered on the anniversary of the first Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915—known as Anzac Day.

In Gallipoli, Anzacs would die
In their thousands; how pointless. And why?
They attacked from the beach,
With the Turks out of reach,
Thanks to Churchill. Thanks, mate. What a guy.

The date of the Allied forces’ amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, 25 April 1915, became a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand, thanks to the high casualties the two young nations suffered alongside the British and the French. After eight months’ fighting in extreme conditions, facing Turkish soldiers who were entrenched at the top of steep hillsides, the Allies abandoned their land campaign and withdrew, a defining moment in Turkish history as well as that of Australia and New Zealand. There was plenty of blame to go around for the campaign’s failure, but Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, took a significant share of it as the campaign’s main sponsor, and was demoted as a result.

Aussie governments: what were they thinking?
They created a land of binge drinking
When they closed pubs at six,
Turning men into pricks
Who would leave work, get pissed, come home stinking.

The temperance movement of the early twentieth century led state governments throughout Australia, as well as the government of New Zealand, to introduce six o’clock closing in pubs after the First World War, five or more hours before the usual previous time. This gave rise to the six o’clock swill, when men leaving work would get as pissed (drunk) as possible as quickly as possible before staggering home to their benighted families; increases in drink-driving, domestic violence, alcoholism and—conveniently for breweries—beer sales all resulted. Pubs themselves changed in order to fit in more patrons in the hour after work, removing billiard tables and tiling their walls for easy cleaning; maintaining a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere was no longer a priority. (No wonder Aussie pubs felt so grim when I was a young man compared with the cosy, welcoming establishments of the UK; many were still tiled, brightly lit, unappealing places, even in the 1980s.) The resulting culture of binge drinking, as the hurried consumption of alcohol came to be called in the 1970s, has typified Australian attitudes to alcohol ever since, despite the states gradually extending their hours, starting with Tasmania in 1937 and ending with South Australia in 1967, the same year that New Zealand followed suit. Six o’clock closing had to be one of the most spectacular policy backfires ever.

Why “Bruces”? Ain’t hard to deduce
That it started with this bloke, ya goose.
Led us more’n six years;
Such a lengthy career’s
A fair suck o’ the sauce bottle, Bruce.

When the Monty Python team asked fellow comedian Barry Humphries for a typical Aussie name to use in a sketch, Bruce was an obvious choice, but by the late 1960s it was already fading as a name for Australian newborns, and Python’s “Bruces Sketch” was probably its death knell. As for why there were so many young Bruces around in the 1950s and 1960s, the government of Nationalist prime minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce (1883–1967) is as good an explanation as any. As well as serving three terms as PM from 1923–29, Bruce was the first Australian to sit in the House of Lords (as the first Viscount Bruce of Melbourne) and the first Chancellor of the Australian National University in Canberra. Bruce presided over the federal parliament’s move to the new capital in 1927, and a Canberra suburb was named for him the year after he died.

To give someone a fair suck of the sauce bottle, saveloy or sav is to give them a fair go or a fair shake (also of the sauce bottle, o’ course). Being the seventh-longest-serving of Australia’s 31 prime ministers (as of May 2024) is a fair suck.

Fans of short-lived PMs will soon gladden
To learn of Prime Minister Fadden
Down under. Got rolled
In short order, we’re told:
Term of 39 days! What a mad ’un.

You might think that the 49-day term of UK prime minister Liz Truss in 2022 was pretty mad (as in insane, in multiple respects), but an Australian PM beat it years ago: Arthur Fadden (1894–1973) replaced Robert Menzies as leader of the UAP–Country Party coalition government after Menzies resigned in August 1941, but lasted barely a month before he was replaced as PM by John Curtin after Labor moved a motion of no confidence. As of May 2024, Fadden remains the shortest-serving Australian prime minister apart from three caretaker leaders.

You’re an elderly Aussie? I’m certain
You know about PM John Curtin.
He died, though, before
I was born, in the war.
Left the hearts of our countrymen hurtin’.

John Curtin (1885–1945), one of Australia’s greatest prime ministers, formed a minority Labor government in 1941, two months before Japan attacked British Malaya and bombed Pearl Harbor. Curtin led Australia’s war effort throughout the Pacific campaign and turned the country’s focus firmly towards America. He led Labor to a record election victory in 1943, but suffered a heart attack the following year; he died in July 1945, six weeks before VJ Day.

Three caretaker leaders have led
The Australian government (fed.),
Viz, McEwen, Page, Forde.
You don’t care? Don’t act bored:
This is on the exam, the prof said.

In the Australian university system, as in the UK, a prof isn’t just any ol’ academic: professor is the seniormost rank, and the prof is usually head of department.

Three of Australia’s 31 prime ministers (as of May 2024) were caretaker leaders of the federal government. Labor’s Frank Forde (1890–1983) was our shortest-serving PM, in office for only seven days in 1945 after the death of John Curtin. Sir Earle Page (1880–1961), leader of the Country Party, served for 19 days after the death of Joseph Lyons in 1939. Finally, John McEwen (1900–1980), another leader of the Country Party, served as PM for 22 days in 1967–68 after the disappearance of Harold Holt.

He chiefly drove trains—chuff, chuff, chuffly—
Till politics called. Chifley—roughly
In charge 4 years—still,
With his “light on the hill”,
Makes nostalgic left-wingers all snuffly.

Ben Chifley (1885–1951) became Australia’s 16th prime minister after the death of John Curtin in 1945, having spent the previous four years as Curtin’s treasurer and the years prior to that as a train driver, union leader, and on-again, off-again MP. Chifley oversaw the reconstruction of the country after the Second World War, and is remembered by Australians in much the same way as Britons remember Clement Attlee; he even attempted to introduce a universal health service and nationalise the banks, although both were overturned by the High Court. His list of achievements was long nevertheless, and today he’s considered one of our greatest prime ministers. Chifley’s description in a 1949 speech of the objectives of the Labor Party as “the light on the hill” has resonated with Aussie pinkos ever since.

Forgive me, my memory’s faulty:
Was he played in a film by Nick Nolte?
With his head shaved, perhaps?
He’d look similar, chaps,
To Victoria’s Premier Bolte.

There was more of Blofeld about Bolte than of hirsute American actor Nick Nolte. I wonder what he made of From Russia with Love.

Sir Henry Bolte (1908–1990) was the longest-serving premier (PREM-ee-yuh) of Victoria (1955–72), and the fifth-longest-serving of Australia’s elected heads of state, federal and colonial government to date. Bolte exploited anti-communist sentiment and splits in the opposition to win re-election six times; his attacks on trade unions, intellectuals, protesters and the press won him a large following among those who like that sort of thing. His refusal to grant clemency also ensured that the last person to be executed in Australia, Ronald Ryan, went to the gallows in 1967. Sensing that his party was losing ground among young voters, the decidedly un-groovy Bolte stepped aside as premier in 1972 in favour of his deputy, Dick Hamer, who went on to win three more elections for the Libs.

Melbourne’s Bolte Bridge, the largest balanced cantilever cast in situ box girder bridge in Australia (so there), is named after him.

The political term coalition
Means parties have joined in one mission.
When it starts with a The
In Australia, we see
A more fixed and long-standing position.

In Australia it means the Lib-Nats,
Two conservative parties—so, that’s
The Liberal and National
Parties. Irrational
Labels... they won again? Rats.

The Lib-Nats are the Liberal-National Coalition, also known as the Coalition, of two right-wing political parties who have competed for government with the Australian Labor Party for decades in Australia and its states and territories. At the federal level, the Liberal Party and its predecessors have been in coalition with the National Party since the 1920s.

Liberal here has the opposite of its US connotations of left-wing; the Liberal Party of Australia is essentially conservative and neoliberal (Australians speak of “small-l liberals” to distinguish between the party and the political ideology of classical liberalism). It was founded in 1944 as the successor to the United Australia Party, ultimately descending from anti-Labor groupings in the first Commonwealth of Australia parliaments.

The National Party, similarly, is not a particularly nationalist party, but rather a party of traditional conservatives with a focus on rural areas and issues; it was founded in 1920 as the Australian Country Party, then in 1975 became the National Country Party, and then adopted its current name in 1982.

“No more Ming! No more Menzies! No Bob!”
Wailed the Libs. They gave Holt the top job.
An unfortunate swim
Saw the exit of him:
Harold, gone. Didn’t bolt, just drowned, prob.

Harold Holt (1908–1967) was Minister for Labour and National Service, Minister for Immigration and later Treasurer under Australia’s longest-serving prime minister and founder of the Liberal Party of Australia, Robert Menzies (nicknamed “Ming” for his merciless appearance), from 1940–41 and 1949–66. In those roles he took a more relaxed approach to the White Australia policy, helped improve industrial relations, and managed the introduction of decimal currency (which he convinced his colleagues to call the dollar rather than the—shudder—royal). He also had ministerial responsibility for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

As heir apparent, Holt became prime minister on Menzies’ retirement in 1966, and won that year’s election in a landslide. New opposition leader Gough Whitlam, however, started to recover ground for Labor the following year, and it’s uncertain whether Holt’s popularity would have lasted had he not mysteriously disappeared in late 1967. Conspiracy theorists surmised that he had been assassinated by the CIA or picked up by a submarine so he could defect to China; the suggestion that he had faked his own death lives on in Australian idiom as rhyming slang for doing a bolt or absconding.

Melbourne memorialised him by naming a swimming pool after him, which tells you all you need to know about Australian attitudes towards authority.

A limerick, most woulda thought, on
A leader like PM John Gorton,
Should have plenty to say,
But on this bloke? No way.
A good sport, but not much to report on.

John Gorton (1911–2002) led the Coalition government of Australia from 1968–1971, taking over in the wake of the disappearance of Harold Holt. He was a clever bastard (literally—he was born out of wedlock, and went to Oxford), but wasn’t as clever as opposition leader Gough Whitlam, who rebuilt the Australian Labor Party to the point where it gained momentum in the 1969 election and went on to win in 1972. Gorton oversaw Australia’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War, maintaining conscription in the face of growing opposition and thus handing Labor the youth vote. On a more positive note, he also increased federal funding for the arts and helped foster Australia’s film industry. Gorton, whose easy-going personality earned him the nickname “Gort the sport”, might even have won in 1972 if he hadn’t already been replaced as PM by the unpopular William McMahon after some internal party shenanigans.

Don Dunstan began in the courts,
Then tackled state wrongs of all sorts.
This friend to the gay man,
Who ousted the Playman-
der, entered the House in pink shorts.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, South Australian elections were distorted by the Playmander, a malapportionment of seats in the state House of Assembly which made some rural votes worth ten times as much as some urban votes and helped Thomas Playford become the longest-serving head of government—over 26 years—in Australian history. Young Fiji-born lawyer Don Dunstan (1926–1999) became the system’s most vocal opponent after his election to the state parliament in 1953. In opposition, Dunstan was also a prominent voice against capital punishment and race-based restrictions on Aboriginal people, and was instrumental in getting the Labor party to abandon the White Australia policy in 1965.

Dunstan became premier in 1967, but lost power at the next election thanks to the Playmander, which he’d been unable to change in the face of upper house opposition. He maintained pressure on the ruling Liberal and Country League to water it down, though, and returned to power in 1970. After securing reforms of the upper house as well, Dunstan’s government was able to implement major change over the next decade, extending shopping hours, criminalising rape within marriage, abolishing capital punishment, and decriminalising male homosexuality. Dunstan was a champion of the arts, the film industry and fine dining—he even published his own cookbook—and caused a media frenzy not long after returning to power by turning up to parliament in knee-length pink shorts.

He retired in 1979 owing to ill health, but remained a strong advocate for multiculturalism and a passionate critic of economic rationalism.

Let’s hijack this party by stacking
Its branches with members whose backing
Of our guys will mean
That the party machine
Will then work in the ways we’ve deemed lacking.

The Australian term branch stacking, coined in the 1960s, describes a political tactic much older and more widespread: that of increasing the membership of a local party branch to ensure that a certain candidate gets preselected to stand at the next election. In the UK in 2019, pro-Brexit candidates ousted Remainers in many Tory preselection battles in this way.

When the ACTU starts to pout,
Aussies know that they’re in for a bout
Of industrial action.
The petulant faction
Won’t play until everyone’s out.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions was a force to be reckoned with up to the 1970s, but has been out-manoeuvred by governments in recent years.

Our union boss wasn’t a fan
Of demolishing history. “Let’s ban
Any work on this site.”
“So, a black ban?” “Too right.”
“Or a green ban, mate,” quipped one quick man.

In the early 1970s, in response to years of ruthless development in Australian cities, unions started prohibiting demolition and construction work on sites they deemed of historical, cultural or environmental significance. This green bans movement was the first of its kind in the world, most famously saving the Rocks district of Sydney from being replaced with skyscrapers. The term was coined by Jack Mundey of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation.

“Want your money? You blokes can go whistle,”
Says the Senate. The government bristle,
And a stalemate ensues.
Then one day comes the news
Of Prime Minister Whitlam’s dismissal.

The governor-general, John Kerr,
Says he had to, but others demur.
Now that son of a grazer,
Gough’s foe, Malcolm Fraser,
Will forever be known by a slur.

Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General. The Proclamation which you have just heard ... was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur. —Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House, 11 November 1975.

In Australia, the Dismissal (capitalised or uncapitalised) refers to the most dramatic day in our political history, when Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Labor government of Gough Whitlam (1916–2014) after a month of constitutional crisis. Whitlam, elected in 1972 after 23 years of federal Coalition government, oversaw three years of breakneck reform, ending conscription and Australian involvement in Vietnam, giving independence to Papua New Guinea, recognising the People’s Republic of China (before Nixon did), securing equal pay for women and pensions for single mothers, lowering the voting age to 18, granting land rights to Aboriginal Australians, and making university education free—to name only some of his government’s achievements.

They were also years of political turmoil, in large part because Whitlam never controlled the upper house of parliament. Senate obstruction had already prompted him to call (and win) one early election in 1974; in late 1975, new opposition leader Malcolm Fraser tried again, blocking supply in order to force the government to another—that is, refusing to pass the bills needed to pay for government spending. The Queen’s representative Sir John Kerr ended the impasse by dismissing Whitlam as PM (just before Whitlam had planned to remove Kerr as GG) and installing Fraser, who won the subsequent election in a landslide.

The Dismissal has been debated, discussed and remembered in countless books and articles since, was dramatised in a TV series of that title in 1983, and in 2019 was turned into an “Extremely Serious Musical Comedy” touted as Australia’s answer to Hamilton. Whitlam and Fraser later became unlikely allies in the 1999 campaign for an Australian republic.

When they lose an election, or theft
Of their office occurs, we’re bereft.
They care for each neighbour:
Australian Labor
MPs are our reps of the left.

The Australian Labor Party, Labor, or the ALP, is the oldest political party in Australia, its colonial origins in the 1890s predating the Commonwealth itself. As the main centre-left party in the country, it has alternated government with parties of the right, primarily the Liberal-National Coalition. Labor governed federally for most of both World Wars; the longest-serving of its 13 prime ministers was Bob Hawke, from 1983–91, although many Labor state premiers have governed for longer.

In 1975, the reformist Labor government of Gough Whitlam was sacked by the Governor-General after opposition senators blocked supply (the bills needed to finance government spending) in an attempt to force it to a third election in as many years. The government, as in other Westminster systems, drew its support from the lower house (the House of Representatives, or Reps), so this obstruction by the upper house and the intervention of the Queen’s unelected representative were seen as a constitutional crime by many Labor supporters.

The spelling of Labor, reflecting US rather than Australian English, was only standardised across all party branches in 1918. One authority argues that it had “more to do with the chap who ended up being in charge of printing the federal conference report than any other reason”.

Labor voters once hated him; though I
Did too, Malcolm Fraser would show I
Was wrong to. Old foes
Can be friends, I suppose...
Though his face still resembled a moai.

Malcolm Fraser (1930–2015) was once loathed by supporters of the Australian Labor Party for his role in the dismissal of the reformist Whitlam government in 1975 by Governor-General Sir John Kerr. After a tumultuous few years, which had already seen Whitlam call and win one snap election, recently installed Liberal leader Fraser used his numbers in the Senate to block supply—that is, to refuse to pass the bills needed to pay for government spending. After a month of stalemate, Kerr sacked Whitlam as PM and installed Fraser as caretaker. Fraser then passed supply and called an election, which he won in a landslide. He governed until 1983, when he was defeated at the polls by Bob Hawke.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the history books. Fraser had always been a supporter of Australian multiculturalism, admitting many Vietnamese refugees to the country while in office and establishing the government Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) aimed at multicultural audiences. After his loss to Hawke he left parliament and worked for the UN and the British Commonwealth, where his stances against apartheid and in support of foreign aid gained him respect from former political enemies. In 1999, Fraser campaigned for an Australian republic alongside Whitlam and Hawke, and he was later a strong critic of the Howard government’s involvement in the Iraq War and its policies towards asylum seekers. He had long been at odds, even as PM, with his party’s economic rationalist wing—who nowadays would be called neoliberals—and the neolibs returned the favour by calling in 2001 for his life membership of the Liberal Party to be revoked. He resigned from the party himself in 2009 after it elected Tony Abbott as its leader, saying it was “no longer a liberal party but a conservative party”. He was a bit late to that realisation, some would say, but better late than never.

Whatever one thought of his politics, though, there was no denying the man’s uncanny resemblance to the statues of Easter Island.

Two state premiers—Cosgrove and Reece—
Ruled Tasmania for decades, in peace
And in war: World War II,
And, years later, a few
More at home—some dam battles don’t cease.

Tasmanian premiers (PREM-ee-yuz) Robert Cosgrove (1884–1969) and Eric Reece (1909–1999) were the third- and sixth-longest-serving of Australia’s elected heads of state, federal and colonial government to date. Cosgrove governed from 1939–58, apart from two months in 1947–48 when he was being tried for (and acquitted of) bribery and corruption. His successor Reece remained in office until 1969, when he lost an election by one seat, then was reelected in 1972, before being forced to retire by a change of party rules in 1975.

Both were Labor leaders and strong proponents of the state’s Hydro-Electric Commission as an engine of industry. Cosgrove worked closely with federal Labor leaders John Curtin and Ben Chifley during and after World War II, supporting greater federal powers in exchange for aid for Tasmania. Thirty years later, Reece, whose staunch support of the Hydro earned him the nickname “Electric Eric”, found himself at odds with federal leader Gough Whitlam over Lake Pedder. After international outcries over plans to flood the former National Park by building a dam on the Gordon River, Whitlam offered Reece a blank cheque if he chose not to, but Reece persisted in the name of state sovereignty, precipitating decades of environmental conflict.

Tasmania’s gorges and rivers
Are perfect for damming: “Delivers
Cheap power,” agree
Our top men. “H.E.C.
Equals progress!” Brown hears it and shivers.

Tasmania’s Hydro-Electric Commission, established in 1914 as the Hydro-Electric Department and popularly known as the Hydro, dominated Tasmanian politics and government throughout the 20th century, driven by the belief that it would attract industry to the state. Post-war migrants helped build numerous dams around the island, and the Hydro’s plans were rarely questioned. The flooding of Lake Pedder by the Gordon River Dam in 1972, however, drowning its glacial-formed white sand beaches, prompted an international outcry and led to the formation of the world’s first green party, the United Tasmania Group. One UTG member, Dr Bob Brown, came to national prominence a decade later in the battle to save the Franklin River and its surrounding temperate rainforest from a similar fate. The Hydro’s scheme, fiercely defended by the state government, was ultimately blocked by the incoming Hawke federal government.

The HEC was broken up in 1998 as part of a national deregulation process; its electricity generation successor is the Hydro-Electric Corporation, trading as Hydro Tasmania. It managed to flood more of the state with new dams into the 21st century, but has now turned its focus to wind farms.

Although only a kid of fourteen, he
Stands up for the forests he’s seen: he
Puts stickers—No Dams—
On his folders. Guy slams
Him: “What are ya, some kind of a greenie?”

In the late 1970s the Franklin River in Tasmania, Australia, was earmarked for a hydroelectric dam which would have drowned thousands of hectares of temperate rainforest, only a few years after the similar destruction of Lake Pedder. The recently formed Tasmanian Wilderness Society led a campaign against the , ramping it up after a 1981 state referendum to choose between two proposed sites saw a third of voters write “No Dams” across their ballots. In 1982, the TWS printed thousands of yellow-green triangular “No Dams” bumper stickers; some cars displaying them ended up with their windows smashed, and the one I put on my folder at school kept getting ripped off by a kid whose dad worked in a local forestry operation. The Franklin River was only saved after Bob Hawke’s federal Labor government secured World Heritage protection for most of southwest Tasmania. The term greenie for an environmentalist emerged in Australia a few years before the No Dams campaign, and has since spread internationally.

Labor’s leader was switched, on the hoof,
And a bitter Bill Hayden said, “Oof.
The dog of a drover
Could take Labor over
The line.” (Bob Hawke romped it home. Woof.)

The drover’s dog has featured in Australian idiom since the 1850s, in various uncomplimentary senses: “a head like a drover’s dog” (ugly), “all prick and ribs like a drover’s dog” (starving), and “leaking like a drover’s dog” (as in political leaks).

In the early 1980s, the federal leader of the Australian Labor Party, Bill Hayden, barely survived a leadership challenge from Bob Hawke, and only a few months later was facing another. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, seeking to capitalise on his opponents’ disarray, opportunistically called a snap election, not knowing that Hayden had resigned that same day; the popular Hawke took over as Labor’s leader and went on to win in a landslide. At a press conference on the day of his resignation, Hayden famously observed that “a drover’s dog could lead the Labor Party to victory, the way the country is”.

Australians knew him as Bob,
The PM who made voters’ hearts throb.
The bodgie I talk
Of was Labor’s Bob Hawke,
Whose silver tongue got him the job.

Robert James Lee Hawke (1929–2019), Australia’s 23rd prime minister from 1983 to 1991, returned Labor to power after a difficult decade, during most of which he had been president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. After entering parliament in 1980, Hawke replaced ALP leader Bill Hayden on the same day in 1983 that Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a snap election; Fraser had been hoping to get in before the opposition changed leaders, but miscalculated. The charismatic Hawke won the election, and led Labor to victory three more times, before being replaced by his long-time treasurer, Paul Keating. A former Rhodes Scholar, Hawke was nicknamed the “Silver Bodgie” for his distinctive coif and after the bodgies and widgies of the 1950s, the Australian biker youth culture equivalent of rockers in the UK or greasers in the US.

A chardonnay socialist enter-
ing Parliament sought to present a
Less-affluent image,
Which prompted a scrimmage—
Blokes whining, “You ain’t left of centre!”

This equivalent of the older British term champagne socialist emerged in the 1980s, around the time Chardonnay became popular with middle-class Australians (who emphasize its first syllable)—which was also a time when more of them were voting Labor. A scrimmage is a rough or vigorous struggle, particularly in a game of footy.

Bjelke-Petersen—Flo called him Joh—
Was a name any Aussie would know
As a joke. “Don’t you worry
About that,” he’d say. Sorry,
Dear Queensland—your bloke had to go.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen (byel-kee-PEET-uh-sun) was one of Australia’s longest-serving state premiers, in office for 19 years and 115 days from 1968 to 1987. As leader of Queensland’s branch of the Country (later National) Party, Joh (as everyone called him, not just his wife Florence) played an outsized role in national politics, even launching a failed campaign to become prime minister in 1985. A staunch conservative who maintained power through gerrymandering, Joh was fond of using the police force against demonstrators, earning Queensland a reputation as a police state and Joh the nickname of the “Hillbilly Dictator”. When challenged by journalists over his attacks on civil liberties or about rampant institutional corruption, his favourite response was “don’t you worry about that”. He was forced out of office in December 1987, called before a subsequent corruption inquiry, and later tried for perjury over the evidence he gave there. He got off, it was later revealed, because the jury foreman sympathized with the “Friends of Joh” movement.

John Howard’s political aim
In becoming PM, he would claim,
Wasn’t “see all goods taxed”:
“No, I want a relaxed
Aussie people.” (Then taxed, was his game.)

John Howard (b. 1939), Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister (1996–2007), was already well-known to the country as a former treasurer (1977–83) under Coalition PM Malcolm Fraser and opposition leader (1985–89) against Labor PM Bob Hawke. When he was reinstated as Leader of the Opposition against Hawke’s successor Paul Keating, Howard proclaimed that “there’s no way that a GST will ever be part of our policy”, because previous Liberal leader John Hewson had lost an election to Keating over the issue. Instead, he wanted Australians to feel “comfortable and relaxed” about their past, present and future, rather than pursuing the reconciliation process between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians that had been initiated by Hawke and continued by Keating.

As PM, Howard restricted the Native Title rights of Aboriginal Australians, refused to provide them a parliamentary apology for centuries of mistreatment, introduced a GST (surprise!) after his 1998 reelection, successfully campaigned for retaining the monarchy in the 1999 referendum on an Australian republic, passed laws to weaken trade unions, turned away asylum seekers and introduced a policy of processing them offshore in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and joined George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq in the face of strong opposition at home.

In 2007 Howard lost his seat to a former ABC journalist, making him only the second Australian prime minister to lose his seat in an election (the first was Stanley Bruce in 1929).

New South Wales’s premier Carr
Was, for Labor supporters, a starr—
Bob was prudent and rational.
His aim? International.
State issues look small from afarr.

Bob Carr (b. 1947) was the longest-serving state premier of New South Wales, from 1995 to 2005, and its second-longest-serving ever after colonial premier Sir Henry Parkes. His government oversaw much of the planning for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Carr was known for his fiscal prudence and focus on environmental issues; by the end of his premiership, the number of national parks in NSW had more than doubled and their coverage had increased from 4 million to 6.6 million hectares.

Carr maintained a strong interest in international relations, and in 2012 he achieved a long-term goal of becoming Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, after being appointed to a vacant Senate seat by PM Julia Gillard. He was selected to stand on the ALP’s Senate ticket in 2013, but instead decided to retire from politics that year.

For misogynist Aussies, it’s still ’ard
To contemplate Julia Gillard:
“Our woman prime minister?
That witch was so sinister.”
For others, her words can still thrill ’ard.

Julia Gillard (b. 1961) was the first (and, as of May 2024, only) woman to serve as prime minister of Australia, having defeated incumbent Kevin Rudd in a leadership spill just before the 2010 election. After that election she formed a minority Labor government with the support of Greens and independents. In office she introduced a National Disability Insurance Scheme, oversaw the initial rollout of the National Broadband Network, and implemented a carbon pricing scheme which saw emissions from affected companies drop 7% on its introduction.

Gillard was subjected to sustained sexist attacks from her political opponents inside and outside parliament, with “witch” one of the milder terms of abuse she suffered. In October 2012 she delivered a passionate speech in parliament on her experience of misogyny, which drew a huge international audience. It gained less attention at home at the time, however, and after poor polling in the lead-up to the 2013 election her party replaced her as leader with Rudd. Rudd lost the election three months later to Tony Abbott, whose smug smirking face you can see in clips of Gillard’s famous speech.

Tony Abbott, once called the “Mad Monk”
By Aussies who reckoned he stunk,
Has become our prime minister,
An outcome so sinister
We’re sitting around in a funk.

A piece to mark Australia’s post-election day 2013.

With the dorothy dixer complete,
The minister rose from his seat
And replied, “I am pleased
To be asked that,” and eased
Into throwing supporters red meat.

In Australian politics, a dorothy dixer is a contrived question asked by a fellow member of parliament to enable a government minister to deliver a speech on a topic of his or her choosing. Dorothy Dix was an American journalist whose widely syndicated personal advice columns of the early twentieth century often featured contrived-sounding questions.

Mispronouncing it won’t make him queasy,
But the name of PM Albanese
Drives Australians crazy.
Albanese? Albanese?
Let’s just call the bloke “Albo”. There, easy.

Early in his political career, Labor MP Anthony Albanese pronounced his own surname to rhyme with cheese, but in recent years has moved to rhyming it with easy, which seems to be where most Aussies have also ended up; it’s also closer to his family name’s original Italian pronunciation of al-ba-NAY-zay. He’s personally never rhymed it with craze, as one of his political opponents does—although that’s at least consistent with how Aussies pronounce bolognese—but at the end of the day, he says, he’s “not terribly precious about it, which is why Albo is a lot easier; you can’t get that wrong”.

Albo (b. 1963) became Australia’s 31st prime minister in 2022.

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