IT IS   disturbing to consider how the damage currently being wreaked on the Tasmanian body politic is occurring within the historical context of loss, sorrow and suffering that has accompanied the gradual reform of political institutions and processes over a long period of time. 

This includes the struggle for suffrage, the removal of plural voting, the removal of wealth and class-based political rights to hold public office or gain employment, the fight against racist, sexist and gender-based discrimination enshrined in law, the fight against child labour, the fight for free, secular and equal education for all, and the fight against the notion of master and servant, entailing the long and continuing struggle for fair working conditions and a living wage.

These are just some of the issues that have been battlegrounds on the unsteady and uneven path towards shared democratic values, and many of these democratic gains are now subject to attrition, even as new challenges to democracy in action are increasing in strength. 

I recently asked whether most Tasmanian politicians can comprehend their actions within a framework of responsibility entrusted them, as custodians of an inheritance of democratic traditions, first and foremost to preserve, and then if possible improve.  I concluded that most of them could not.  This is not to tar them all with the same brush – there are those who had the courage of their convictions to oppose the Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007, for example, and they are held in high esteem in the Tasmanian community.

But without some kind of historical reference most people are lost.  To put it at its most basic, “not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child” (Cicero, first century BCE).  Or, in the words of a more recent commentator, “we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware of what happened yesterday”(Lewis Lapham, 2008).

It is not only the struggles of the past that are lost to view, but also the significance of those struggles at the time they occurred, and the values that accompanied them.  For when the struggles are forgotten so too are the human dimensions – the courage, the fear overcome, the physical intimidation, the verbal vitriol, character assassination and social ostracism, the personal economic costs, and the use of unjust laws and the abuse of state power.

To our shame, the historical struggle for the separation of powers has been lost from view, as is the importance of its preservation if we are to retain a democratic society into the future.

The origins of the separation of powers can be traced back, at least in the British experience, 800 years or more, culminating in a successful, but strongly contested attempt by the landed elite to limit the power of the monarchy to jail them without trial.  But who knows of the significance of Magna Carta in Tasmania today, as a first step on the long path to the separation of the judiciary from the legislative and executive functions of a democratic state?  And who knows of the profound importance for the maintenance of a free society that an independent judiciary is?  It is more than profoundly important.  It is vital.

The interest of several Tasmanian Legislative Councilors in investigating ways to ensure that there can be no political interference in judicial appointments cannot be allowed to be side-tracked by Labor or Liberal politicians serving their personal careerist or party interests.  There is clearly too much at stake for that.  The current lack of proper processes and lack of transparency in the appointment of magistrates may serve the interests of political parties which have forgotten, lost sight of, or deliberately discarded their own histories, but threatens the basic principle of separation of powers in a dangerous way. 

It is also to our shame that we have lost sight of the individuals in the past who have carried the burdens of struggle in extremis.  Most of them are forgotten.

This is no less true of the one struggle (or series of struggles) in our historical legacy that we do commemorate on that one day of the year, Anzac Day.  Even though Anzac Day is a public occasion throughout Australia – and indeed wherever Australians might be in the wider world – annually on 25 April, how many Australians actually know much about what actually occurred on the first Anzac Day, or what occurred in the months that followed, or why Australians ended up on Gallipoli at all, or how many died or were permanently incapacitated? 

My guess is that a majority of Tasmanians would not be able to link Gallipoli, the most well-known of all Australian historical events, to a wider conflict in the heart of Europe between 1914 and 1918.

Gallipoli acts as a symbol for the human cost of all conflicts where Australians have participated, and are participating now, but in an important sense the focus on Gallipoli contributes to losing sight of the rest.

We need to remember that some Tasmanians who fought at Gallipoli in 1915 and survived, then went to the Western Front in 1916, and died in the carnage at Pozieres, which cost 30,000 Australian casualties in three weeks.  Some survived again to fight through a seemingly endless sequence of battles, such as the hell of Passchendaele in 1917, and those who survived the war without injury were very lucky.

One of the lucky ones to return, albeit injured, was Eric Campbell, who, with the possible exception of Henry Murray, is the most well-known Tasmanian digger of World War I . Campbell is only well known because, at the time of his death in 2002, he was the longest surviving veteran of a million soldiers who fought at Gallipoli. He has his own entry in The Companion to Tasmanian History, published in 2005.  Those Tasmanians who died on the first Anzac Day in 1915 are not known in this way, just as those who died at Pozieres are unknown, and just as those who fought through the whole war and returned home in 1919, forever changed, are unknown. 

There is a public memorial to the Tasmanians of the Australian 2/40 Battalion in Royal Park, Launceston.  It is a small bench with a plaque. It is the only memorial to this largely Tasmanian infantry battalion which served in the Second World War that I know of, apart from the honour roll in Launceston’s RSL, which lists the names of those who died.

How many Tasmanians know that 800 Tasmanians were in the 2/40 Battalion, that most of them were captured in Timor in 1942, that they then worked, starved and died in Japanese prison camps all over Asia, including Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Borneo, Manchuria and Japan itself.  Some of them were in Nagasaki when the city was destroyed by an atom bomb in 1945.

More than 260 members of the 2/40 battalion died in action or as prisoners of the Japanese.

How many know the story of other Tasmanian units of World War 2?  The story of the 2/12 Battalion, for example, which fought against the Germans and the Japanese.  Several thousand Tasmanians passed through its ranks.  Or the story of the Tasmanian company of the 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion, which landed on Java without its machineguns, en route back to Australia from the Middle East.  Their story mirrored that of the 2/40 Battalion as prisoners of the Japanese. 

How many Tasmanians know the story of their nurses who have served in theatres of war from the Boer War till now?  At least one Tasmanian nurse was murdered by the Japanese on Banka Island in 1942.  Some were prisoners of the Japanese on Sumatra and some died of malnutrition and disease there.  One of them, Elisabeth Simons, wrote a book about it, and worked as a nursing sister in Launceston for many years after the war.

There are too few Tasmanians who know about these and other stories of our men and women who have fought and died, including our indigenous people, who not only fought for survival and against dispossession from their land, but also as part of Tasmanian units at war overseas.

Finally, in the context of a Tasmanian polity which has forgotten where it comes from, and therefore has a poor capacity to understand the nature of the damage that is currently being wrought on its basic fabric, let me briefly tell the story of “Dummy” Armstrong, corporal in the 2/40 Battalion.

Armstrong came from Beaconsfield in the Tamar Valley.  He was a single 21 year old labourer when he enlisted in the AIF in June 1940.  He soon made his mark as a natural soldier.  According to one old digger who knew him well, “when we had these platoon stunts, with one section as the enemy, if we put Dummy out as a scout we’d have no worries.  He’d nail them”.

In the fighting in Timor Armstrong was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in action.  After the battalion was captured he was used by the Australian commanding officer in the dangerous role of breaking out of the camp to undertake reconnaissance and sabotage. 

In March 1942, after a captured Australian pilot joined the battalion in the prison camp, a plan was hatched to hijack a Japanese plane from the nearby airfield.  Armstrong’s work outside the camp was pivotal to the success of this scheme.  He was then the guide and scout for an escape attempt of eight officers, and managed to get them all to the chosen plane.  The plan only ended in failure when the pilot was unable to start the engines.

Several months later Armstrong was undertaking another reconnaissance operation outside the camp, to make contact with Australian guerillas operating in East Timor, when the battalion was moved by the Japanese from Timor to Java.  Armstrong was left behind.  He was never seen again, at least by Australians.

His army file lists him as being executed by the Japanese at an unknown date.  In 1946 a war crimes tribunal established to prosecute Japanese for their brutality to prisoners of war, found that Armstrong had been captured by the Japanese, tortured and executed.  He was 23 or 24 at the time of his death.

I have never seen a photograph of Dummy Armstrong, but I wish I could.  He deserves to be remembered by Tasmanians, but isn’t.  The legacy of his memory, and the legacy of all the other memories we should have, but don’t, demand at the very least a stand be taken to stop the rot in the Tasmanian political system.

Peter Henning   is the author of Doomed Battalion: The Australian 2/40 Battalion 1940-45, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1995). 

 

 

Peter Henning

The origins of the separation of powers can be traced back, at least in the British experience, 800 years or more, culminating in a successful, but strongly contested attempt by the landed elite to limit the power of the monarchy to jail them without trial.  But who knows of the significance of Magna Carta in Tasmania today, as a first step on the long path to the separation of the judiciary from the legislative and executive functions of a democratic state?  And who knows of the profound importance for the maintenance of a free society that an independent judiciary is?  It is more than profoundly important.  It is vital.

The interest of several Tasmanian Legislative Councilors in investigating ways to ensure that there can be no political interference in judicial appointments cannot be allowed to be side-tracked by Labor or Liberal politicians serving their personal careerist or party interests.  There is clearly too much at stake for that.  The current lack of proper processes and lack of transparency in the appointment of magistrates may serve the interests of political parties which have forgotten, lost sight of, or deliberately discarded their own histories, but threatens the basic principle of separation of powers in a dangerous way.