Ross Gibson: Seven Versions of an Australian Badland

Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland is about a horror stretch of road in Queensland. It is packed full of interesting ideas but the narrative seems hurried and thus the ‘cognitive capital’ of the author diminished. What I mean by this is that it is too fragmentary and lacks authorial discipline. There are too many chapters and too many themes and the book is too small to carry them. It also on occasions seems tainted by the prose of the post colonial theorists when these ideas could have been rendered more colourfully through evocative story and metaphor. But the idea of an Australian Badland free from the useful narrative of European colonialism is a wonderful one but I wish that this book had have unpacked the stories and embellished them with more fatty beef (obviously not from the badlands).

Excerpt from The History of Moomba 1955-2005

This is the Prologue of the book Moomba: A Festival for the People. This is now available to download here.

The first Myer float.


In 2005, Melbourne’s Moomba Festival became half a century old. Since its establishment in 1955, the festival has become something of an institution, unfolding in the city’s parks, along its streets and on the waters of its YarraRiver. The festival is as familiar to post-war Melbourne as the AFL and the Melbourne Cup have been for more than a century. Moomba has touched the lives of millions; it has had hundreds of administrators, tens of thousands of performers and legions of spectators. It is the event at which numerous teenagers have stolen their first kiss, at which the streets have come alive with colour and fanfare, and at which fireworks have lit up the night sky.

Moomba provides something for everyone and has at times had up to 200 different events spread over 11 days, and most of them free. From the flower and cat shows of the early years to the world music of more recent years, from waterskiing to parades of decorated trams, and from street theatre to world-class opera, Moomba has sought to respond to the times and to engage a diverse audience in a popular community festival. It is of little surprise that it has been subject to criticism for its populism. But Moomba’s success can be best measured by the great numbers of supporters who come to the city annually to participate in the entertainment.

Moomba is marked by both continuity and change. It has reinvented itself through the years to remain relevant and vibrant to festival-goers, who, since the mid-1980s at least, have had no shortage of events to choose from. With its changing festival directors, administration and funding; its backdrop of shifting social, cultural and political environments; and the inevitable criticisms to which such populist events are subject, Moomba necessarily has a rich and complex history. The story of Moomba is in effect a composite of many stories. But there are some continuities that form a core to the past of this outdoor festival. These relate primarily to place and the nature of the events that have occurred, and still do, in those places.

For many festival-goers the most memorable experience is the grand parade down Swanston Street, which has served historically as the defining event of Moomba. At its height from the 1950s until the 1970s, it drew hundreds of thousands of people to central Melbourne. In the early years these pageants embodied the glitz and high times of the 1950s, livening up what was a lifeless city centre. Horse- and tractor-drawn floats sometimes swan shaped or festooned in flowers  created an incongruous procession against the grey, Victorian facades of Swanston Street. Women with wooden perambulators pushed their way through crowds to catch a glimpse of the scores of clowns or of Blinko the Bunyip. Men in hats held babies in bonnets to watch a procession that would include a float of a colossal Merino sheep made of plastic blooms or gold prospectors celebrating the founding industries of Victoria’s economy. A clown on towering stilts, Alexander Jurman, was a regular in the early years of Moomba, as were the flamboyant floats of Myer Emporium and the Gas & Fuel Corporation.

The crowning of Moomba royals  a festival tradition from 1955 until 1998  and the months of devoted float preparation culminated in a visual feast seen by thousands on the streets and on television. Moomba has always been connected to, and in some ways a product of, television in Australia, which was introduced in 1956, the year the Olympics were held in Melbourne. The selection of Moomba sovereigns and the themes of many floats were often determined by popular television shows. The first parade to be televised was that of 1957.

AlexandraGardens, on the south side of the YarraRiver, has long hosted a key element of Moomba. It is here that the carnival has traditionally showcased its Ferris wheel, gaping-mouthed clown heads, fluffy toys and vertiginous thrill rides. Virtually from Moomba’s inception until 2002 the Wittingslow family ran the carnival. Close to AlexandraGardens, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in King’s Domain has staged several Moomba music concerts. TreasuryGardens, too, has been home to Moomba events, most notably the Herald Outdoor Art Show, established as an independent event in 1953, and the Garden Party, which took place between 2000 and 2002.

If Swanston Street and the inner-city parks are seminal places in the history of Moomba, so too is the Yarra. As Melbourne has come to appreciate this central artery, Moomba has embraced the Yarra and the new urban developments that flank it. Historically much neglected and maligned, the muddy river that runs through the city’s heart has been the stage for many sporting feats and aquatic displays; for example, the Moomba Showboat, the Dragon Boat Races, the Moomba Masters and the Birdman Rally.

One of the largest and longest-running festivals in Australia, Moomba has survived in spite of its critics, and it commands a strong place in the social history of the city. It often unflatteringly reminds us of where we have come from and what we have become, but that too is part of its charm. For generations it has been an event where Melburnians celebrate their sometimes-conflicting cultural identities, but to embrace Moomba is to affirm its inclusive philosophy.

While at its inception it was a commercially driven festival, Moomba has always sought community involvement. In early festivals post-war migrants typically displayed their ethnicity through traditional costume and performance, and in the mid-1960s, with a turn towards a more arts-oriented program, Aboriginal, Jewish, Italian and Latvian arts featured prominently. Multiculturalism has been widely accepted since the early 1990s, and from this period particularly cultural diversity has been well represented in Moomba. In accordance with council’s City Plan objectives, this unique community festival is a celebration of identity, culture and place.

the tram parade

Historical Milestones
1951 Australia celebrates 50 years of federation with a parade and the staging of the theatre production An Aboriginal Moomba: Out of the Dark.

1952 Melbourne holds its final Labour Day procession.

1954 Reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II visits Melbourne for the first time, and crowds gather in the city centre to witness the royal spectacle. Melbourne City Council and City Development Association see an opportunity to realise a long-held vision; they propose an annual festival for the people.

1955 The first Moomba Festival is held in March 1955, with Beverley Stewart leading the parade as Queen of Moomba.

1956 Television is introduced into Australian homes and the following year the parade is broadcast, beginning Moomba’s long relationship with television.

1961 The Moomba Masters waterskiing event is introduced onto the YarraRiver.

1963 Queen Elizabeth II visits Australia on her royal tour. The Moomba Festival is moved from 11 March to 25 February to coincide with her visit, and it is extended from 11 to 15 days.

1967 English actor Robert Morley becomes the first King of Moomba.

1972 John Farnham is crowned King of Moomba, and the Moomba Showboat is launched. Lesley Clucas, a 21-year-old student, falls off the RMIT float and is killed.

1976 The first Birdman Rally is held.

1977 Mickey Mouse is the controversial choice for King of Moomba; a pie is thrown in his face during the parade. ABBA plays to Moomba crowds at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and is given a civic reception at the MelbourneTown Hall.

1978 Bert Newton becomes the first Melbourne-born King of Moomba.

1981 As part of the Moomba program, legendary rock band AC/DC plays at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

1982 A network of independent artists announces plans for a weeklong Fringe Festival. Supported by Moomba, the first Fringe Festival coincides with Moomba the following year.

1985 Trade unions reclaim their heritage, holding a Labour Day concert in the Melbourne Concert Hall and marching with banners in the Moomba parade.

1986 Melbourne International Arts Festival is established, initially named Spoleto Festival.

1987 Paul McNamee is crowned the last King of Moomba and Marita Jones the last Queen.

1996 The Australian Formula One Grand Prix is held for the first year in Albert Park.

1998 Denise Drysdale is crowned the last Moomba Monarch.

1999 Controversy reigns as Zig and Zag are about to be crowned Moomba Monarchs. The monarch system ends and the festival is declared a republic.

2000 Tram parades takes place.

2003 Moomba is renamed Moomba Waterfest and the Young Ambassador title is awarded for the first time.

Owen Harries Boyer Lectures on Radio National

How to Avoid the Parochialism of the Present

Globalisation and International Relations are two important fields for individuals to engage with at this present time given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the US as the world’s only hegemon. Globalisation is an vital field to comprehend, not simply because of the actualities of globalisation (which are themselves at times difficult to understand) but because the field has caused much equivocation. It is a term broad enough (similar to the term ‘terrorism’) to encompass a range of activities. But sometimes partisan political beliefs, adversarial convictions, and attenuated world views prevent individuals from pursing the path of truth and honesty in research but instead use a somewhat nebulous and misunderstood term to conceal their own partisan beliefs.

Own Harries is not one of these people. His lectures on Radio National for the Boyer series are honest, well balanced, considered, and well historicised. He embeds ‘globalisation’ within the realist school of international relations and realist history, both of which are impossible to dismiss in any conversation that claims to engage with ‘the global’.

His major gaps in discussing the global political typography are that he fails to mention Green politics and environmentalism, corporate globalisation and the limits to consumerism: All of these forces promise to become major political entities in shaping global political consciousness.

I will list some of the major points that he uses to schematise the global political economy:

The US is in a unique position at the moment as the only global hegemon. Before the second world war there were many (which is the usual state of affairs), then there were two during the cold war, then there was only one. The US has an unwritten script and this was not tested until the terrorist attacks of S11 2001.

He claims that the most important policy document to be produced by the US (in terms of foreign affairs and since the Truman Doctrine of 1947) is The National Security Strategy of the United States of America: This sets out how the United States is to use its hegemonic position:

Harries makes a realist attack on the Utopia School of globalisation (about time). He quotes that Utopia is always one of the world greatest countries.

He makes the contentious point that countries are no more economically integrated at the end of the 20th Centuray as the were at the start of the 20th Century. This refutes the Manual Castells ‘network society’ view of the global economy.

Harries discusses the term ‘democracy’ and discusses how this world is now used is a superficial manner. He makes the distinction between liberal democracies, democracies, liberalism and illiberal democracies. He states that all democracies are different and it is not a system that can work with a great deal of poverty or without liberalism.

In his ‘challenges’ lecture he discusses the enormous risks being taken by China and Europe and how both these powers could drastically influence the world order. He concludes that perhaps some of the greatest challenges posed to the US may be the US itself, especially considering the reckless nature of its government and the collapse of the institutions that moderate the individual. He discussed the changing demography of Europe, in terms of an ageing and falling population, and how this is exactly the opposite in the US and could pose internal challenges for both societies.

Don Watson: Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, A Portrait of Paul Keating


Don Watson’s biography Recollections of a Bleeding Heart is the first biography that I have read since reading David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life in 1995 (about the same time that society collapsed). And what a magnificent segue that it is into the core of things that matter. And even if you aren’t a Labor person or aren’t interested in the laws and institutions that govern you (as if intellectual ‘sectarianism’ ever meant freedom of thought) then it is still worth understanding how people with national political responsibilities have thought. So many younger Australians have been margianalised within a post-industrial waste-land-country named ‘Utopia’; a place that you may migrate to when you have all but given up.

Continue reading “Don Watson: Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, A Portrait of Paul Keating”

Beyond the Ladies Lounge by Clare Wright

Clare Wright’s book Beyond the Ladies Lounge is a history of Australia’s Female Publicans. What caught my attention when reading the book is its engaging use of feminist theory. This is perhaps because the book was written within the University of Melbourne’s History School. This school’s full title is the School of History and Women’s studies and it is the only school at that university with a focus on feminist concerns (and history).This refutes (as does Wright’s work) the popularly held myth that history is an ‘old boys club’. The evidence suggests that architecture and law and even new media are much less progressive disciplines in this sense.

The book addresses the question, in a somewhat revisionist style; why has Australia had so many female publicans as compared to other countries such as the US and Britain? Wright concentrates on the legislative and legal frameworks of the historical causes and effects and claims that females owned pubs because women were excluded from other parts of the labour force and other forms of social mobility (this is a similar story to the history of milkbars in Australia in terms of the migrant experience). The book has a broad reach from the earliest days of the Victorian Gold Rush (when pubs were in tents) to the barren ‘blokey’ pubs of the 1970s.

She discusses the ‘feminity’ of pubs and argues that pubs were legislated to be ‘family affairs’ with a public duty and women were often in a better position to uphold public morality. The whole family often lived in a pub and the bar was in many cases simply an extension of the house. The pub had to provide food and accommodation and was often (and still is in my street) a hub of the local community.

My major criticism of the work is that perhaps because it was re-written from research done for a PhD qualification (in a prestigious history school) that it often suffers from a misunderstanding of its audience. I took the book to my local pub where the publicans didn’t really get it and I feel that the book, given its subject matter, could have benefited from a greater evocative style. It was well promoted in the media, on the back of the ‘blokey’ history wars, but still the popular perception and promotion of the book did not resemble the actual content of the book. It is difficult to publish a PhD, especially because on the one hand the audience are specialists in your field whilst on the other hand the audience is the general reader (who are often the ‘owners’ of the very history being told). It is a difficult chasm to traverse and although Wright’s work is an excellent history is it not an excellent popular history. I feel that it does not always do justice to the popular history that could have been told. It is not about making ‘populist short cuts’ (which is not scholarship) but is is about using words and images and stories that (metaphorically) have deeper and more significant historical meanings. It is possible to bury some of the more pedestrian skills of the historian within the narrative and privilege the story. This would have given the work greater public reach without sacrificing the excellent historical practice.

Quarterly Essay David Malouf

What a comendable addition the Quarterly Essay is to the national debate. It is refreshing to engage with larger Australian discussions after floundering in the intellectual vacuum of ‘the global’ for such a long time. The problem with much discourse on ‘the global’ is that it is largely dismissive of national discussions. ‘The national’ is seen as the complicit pariah whilst all the answers to (and causes of) the world’s ills are contained within the utopian vacuum called ?the global?. All social movement, such as the Civil Rights movement in the US, have had utopian elements, but one wonders how long one can be utopian for? The anti-corporate-globalisation movement was far too utopian and I wonder where next for this crucial social movement?

The utopian is not enduring (it soon turns into hell ie. Lord of the Flies) and how long does it take the average utopian to undertake a reality check (kill Piggy)? The reality check is that Australians live in one of the most enduring and stable democracies in the world. This, as David Malouf points out, is because of the Westminster system and the legacy of our British inheritance (for better or worse). It is going to take a little bit more than a trade agreement or ?sectarian? globalisation discourse before Australia disappears into the anlienting vacuum of the global (either corporate or civic). To take ‘the national’ out of the discussion of ‘the global’ is like playing football without a football oval. It is an intellectual version of year zero, a post-industrial Pol Pot for the Social Sciences.

I suppose that it is much easier to name and blame your ‘enemy’ than it is to understand them. As Owen Harris from the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies claims, the reason that there are clashes during this present period of ‘globalisation’ is perhaps because people do not understand it. It is largely equivocation.

Anyway, David Malouf’s essay Made in England is far too brief and does not do justice to the topic. But it is optimistic and honest; it is worldly as well as emanating from an older Australia that I can only imagine. This older Australia seems smaller, homogenous, narrowly globally networked and not well rounded. It is an industrial Australia, a pre information society Australia, a middle brow Australia. It is vapid and oblate Australia and one that I am glad that we left behind for a much more complex and culturally topographical (if unfair) Australia. It is an historically energetic essay but it is forgettable. It is well trodden ground; perhaps our history story telling parallels our democratic history; unreflective and secure. Malouf’s comparisons to the United States in terms of slavery and convicts is insightful (in terms of articulating the great hypocracy at the centre of American dictums such as ‘freedom’).

And I come away from the essay a little wiser as to who I am in the culture and language that is my country. Sure I could imagine another country such as ‘the global’ but then I would lose my culture and lose my identity. No one lives in the global, it is an imaginary place. The world is full of contradictions and inefficiencies and contingent centres of power. Napoleon called Britain (during the last great period of free trade and globalisation) a nation of shop keepers. So too is Australia. A nation of petit bourgeois ‘Bo Bos’ (bourgeois bohemians) imagining a much more engaging and rugged past. This is the invention of a national tradition. And shop keepers don’t talk about ‘the national’ that much because ‘the national’ is, in the old world of real politiks, the enemy of the shop keeping class (ie. invasive taxation and work place laws). Shop keeper radicals talk about the global because the global isn’t that much bigger than the doorstep that is swept each day.

Adam Thrilwell’s Politics

Adam Thrilwell’s novel Politics is as energetic as it is neurotic as English as it is universal. The universal themes primarily surround the sex scenes which are generational in an occasional hackneyed fashion, but rescued by a biting insight and honesty (There is a lot of energy in honesty and it is always better to be honest than truthful). It is a bright novel, in no way vapid or insipid, and reveals the intelligence of a broad reading within a humanist, historical, and personal canon.

Thrilwell is not a dilettante but employs a staccato pace that is penetrating, unpretentious and once more honest. Just when you think the tread of a reflection or comment in the prose is all but exhausted he takes it one more step; taking his reader well beneath the surface (or even the sheets). The prose is littered with the traces of the past, mostly idiosyncratic bites from the masters of Eastern Europe or political tyrants. He discusses Mao’s venereal diseases and Stalin’s phone manner. There is Bulkacov and Yeates and Stendhal and architectural spattering with semen and threesomes and guilt and love.

It is an endearing novel and the meditative narrator opens the work to the reader through a reflection on the process of writing it which doesn’t privilege the form of the work over the significance (or enjoyment) of the story. He uses ‘I’ in a self-effacing manner rather than an egocentric manner.

And I suppose that if I do the same here, that is reflect upon writing this book review on a web log, then what is gained? There are lots of web logs and many are merely self indulgent naval gazing that have little or no significance to anyone, perhaps not even to the hollowed out author. The worst are web logs that discuss the process of the web log but do nothing more. It is icing without a cake, it is the surface without a soul. The ability to write well is part of the story, but it can never be the whole story. Many tyrants have been able to write well and many chemists have been able to innovate murdering. Many IT specialists have been able to spread ignorance, jealously, greed, shallowness, and inequality more efficiently. Many have not.