COLUMN | Wool pulled over eyes

Wool ewe please stop: Tom Roberts’ Shearing the Rams from 1890, oil on canvas, normally held at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, but a star attraction at the recent exhibition in Canberra. What does it say to us?
Wool ewe please stop: Tom Roberts’ Shearing the Rams from 1890, oil on canvas, normally held at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, but a star attraction at the recent exhibition in Canberra. What does it say to us?

I can’t believe how many locals I’ve chatted with who made the trip to Canberra to see the hugely-successful Tom Roberts art exhibition at the National Gallery.

To some, Roberts’ paintings are old hat, idealisms of a vanished world. But visitor stats speak for themselves and his paintings obviously still speak to people today.

Take his famous Shearing the Rams, from 1890.

Some love its feeling for colour and light, others see it as an ode to a nation that once rode the sheep’s back – which rings a bell here, given local places such as Camden Park and the Woolwash. I love it beacuse my great-grandfather, Tom McGill, was one of these men, a blade shearer in the 1890s. But I also love it because it’s not of a prince or pollie – the subjects that dominated European art. The workers, not their bosses, dominate this painting. It speaks to our egalitarianism.

When you put it into context – the conflict between the shearers and rich graziers before Federation – it’s actually shocking in its relevance and shows how little has changed in 125 years.

Take the shearers. They had a tough life in hot and airless sheds working on unfair terms dictated by the boss. A bit like many of the workers reading this – commuting, doing long hours in a job that used to be done by four people, and being screwed at every point.

As for the rich graziers, the bosses, most of them had stolen their land at gunpoint from Aboriginal people, got rich by paying £10 a year for stations that stretched as far as the eye could see, and built mansions with servants, silverware and stables. Imagine them as today’s big bank CEOs and politicians.

In the 1890s, tough economic times hit – like today.

How did the rich graziers deal with it? Did they cook their own meals or stop spending money on racehorses? No, they cut the wages of the shearers.

A bit like today’s CEOs who sack 500 workers as they hand themselves a million dollar bonus. Or a government that cuts tax for mining billionaires while going after the sick, poor, young and old.

The shearers went on strike in the 1890s and found the full weight of government, courts, and police thrown against them. A bit like the Baird government’s new laws which allow police to be used as a private security firm for mining companies against CSG protesters. Or the way the Turnbull government wants to hunt you down for downloading Games of Thrones, yet turns a blind eye to huge corporations paying no tax.

In the 1890s, the graziers were also the magistrates, and rorted the law to protect their own interests, then used it to arrest striking shearers for “sedition”.

A bit like our leaders today who will happily hold a royal commission into trade union corruption, but  refuse to investigate financial industry corruption, political donation corruption or the way small businesses and farmers are driven to the wall by banks and supermarkets. It also reminds me of the Liberal politicians who put their noses in the trough for endless lurks and perks, yet want to put a stop to a local single mum or uni student earning an extra $50 in penalty rates on a Sunday.

When the Budget of 2014  targeted battlers in places like Macarthur, I confronted local MP Russell Matheson and he replied that Macarthur was “the backbone of Australia”. That’s a problem to me, because we shouldn’t be. Maybe the harbourside millionaires paying no tax should have a go at being the backbone.

Perhaps what Tom Roberts was really trying to say to future generations with his painting was that we’re always gonna get fleeced.


Camden Council – The saga unfolds

A bit like a nasty traffic accident, we can’t take our eyes off Camden Council.

From protest rallies and a sacked GM to public slanging matches, it’s had something for everyone. As one of my Camden friends tells me, the only thing it’s missing is the trailer and popcorn. “But I’m not sure if it’s a comedy or a tragedy,” she added.

As a young reporter in the 1980s and 1990s I recall Camden Council was positively boring compared to the drama factories of Campbelltown and Wollondilly Councils. Not now.

There’s headlines about factions, branch stacking and a plot to unseat MP Chris Patterson. The claim that membership of Camden Young Libs was “in single figures” last year, but has swollen to 54 (some of them from as far afield as Potts Point) is the sort of shenanigans we’re getting used to.

Now we have headlines that Lib Penny Fischer – who I don’t think is president of the Chris Patterson Fan Club – refuses to read Aboriginal acknowledgments of country. She says it’s “tokenistic”. Personally, I agree with Mayor Lara Symkowiak, it’s just a respectful thing to a people badly treated for 200 years. Some would call it good manners. But Cr Symkowiak said her decision to raise the issue against Cr Fischer was “completely unrelated” to the fact she a strong supporter of Mr Patterson. 

Yeah, totally. We wait with bated breath for the next cliff-hanging instalment.