Thursday, January 24, 2013

So what about Ned Kelly...

I am moved to write this entry due to a confluence of recent events:
1. Ned Kelly's body (sans skull which is still missing believed to have been souvenired at the time of his execution) was recently laid to rest in an unmarked grave  with his mother and other family members.  This prompted some opinion pieces and commentary among one of which raised the question of whether it was time to lay him to rest in the icon/hero stakes as well.

2. I have just finished reading Ruby Langford's autobiography "Don't Take Your Love to Town". Ruby was writing during the time of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and Ruby relates in her book a couple of case studies considered by the inquiry.  Integral to Ruby's own story is the experiences of her family and friends including her son Nobby. This is in the days of police verbals and corruption exposed by the Wood Royal Commission. Ruby tells of savage retribution and bashings and just plain persecution by the Police and the justice system. Of a young boy, who tragically comes under the attention of a system which clearly had adopted a zero tolerance to a child making an error of judgement. Sure, this is the perspective of a mother but the events Ruby relates ring all too true. Indeed at this point in history, what may have seemed confronting and hard to accept when she wrote her story, has now assumed a monotonous predictability. A shameful predictability.

I was struck by two things
1. That we really have not made the progress we should have in the last 25 years. It seems like not much has changed. For all that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody found that Aboriginals do not die at a higher rate than other inmates, just watching the media,  the circumstances of some deaths just beggar belief.  An indigenous man transported for hundreds of miles and many hours in the poorly ventilated back of a paddy wagon without water or response to his cries for attention and assistance. Or the case of Cameron Doomadgee (Mulrunji) on Palm Island which continues to attract headlines and is the subject of one of Australia's landmark books - The Tall Man. These are not isolated cases. Indeed deaths in custody is not an issue unique to Australia.

2. How relevant Ned Kelly's story is to these more recent injustices.  Ned Kelly is famous as an outlaw. Sure, he's famous for the armour and evading a big manhunt for so long. But he's just as famous and perhaps even more famous as someone who a large proportion of the population felt was a victim of the system and a hero. That what crimes he did commit he was driven to either by poverty, in self defence or out of desperation. That he was not given a fair trial.  Some of the early crimes Ned committed were also committed by the large land holders of the day, the difference being that the "establishment" had the Police in their court. For example poddy dodging and cattle duffing etc was par for the course. Unless you were poor and/or Irish. The social context is most easily understood by reading The True Story of the Kelly Gang

Ned Kelly's iconic status is mostly about maintaining an awareness of the contribution of "the system" in social outcomes for individuals. In that respect it is absolutely clear that Ned Kelly is as relevant to Australians today as he has ever been. Far from being time to lay him to rest as an Australian icon we need an icon for the underdog as much as ever.