How we trivialise really important things

In Canberra, between the Hyatt Hotel and Old Parliament House, there is a most elegant memorial to Magna Carta, in a pleasant patch of grass called Magna Carta Place. The monument is a gift from the British Government to mark the centenary of the Australian Federation. The site was dedicated in 1997 which was the 700th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta by King Edward I of England. A 1297 copy of the Magna Carta, purchased by the Australian government in 1952, is on display in Parliament House.

In June this year the Queen led a flotilla of small craft in her royal barge Gloriana (it could pass for something you might see in Wagner’s Ring cycle, or at the end of Lord of the Rings) bearing a facsimile of the Great Charter to a meadow near Runnymede, where King John signed the first version. He subsequently had the Pope annul it, on the ground that it was signed under duress. But the Charter was redrafted three times in the next ten years, and confirmed as part of English law in 1297. In Canberra, the Museum of Australian Democracy held a medieval festival to celebrate the event. Its senior historian said this:

The Magna Carta really is at the bedrock of our democracy and that’s the link that we make in our latest exhibition. It was a bunch of barons saying to the king, you can’t just do what you like, there is a rule of law and we would like you to abide by it, and we want it in writing. And it is fundamental to the rule of law that we have in this country today, that is still being debated.

Like most Australians whom we now politely call ‘seniors’, I first learned of Magna Carta in primary school. It was Bad King John who signed it, to quieten the rebellious barons. King John was mixed up with Good King Richard and Robin Hood and Maid Marian, but I’m not sure the latter two were mentioned in primary school. But we had all seen Errol Flynn in ‘Robin Hood’, so the moral tone was straightforward. Richard was good. John was bad. In fact, on some accounts, Richard was just as tyrannical as his younger brother.

What had King John actually done? Three score and ten years later, I can’t quite remember what I learned in school. But it was Important, and was mixed up with how we got to be a democracy and had elections. King John became King of England on the death of Richard, in 1199. He lost the French possessions of the monarchy in battles in France, and died from illness in 1216. He demanded more money from the landholders, and was swift in dealing with those who would not pay, which led to growing opposition against him. Rebellious barons captured London in May 1215, and forced him to sign the Charter. That didn’t end things, because civil war followed quickly when he had the Pope annul it.

Magna Carta has 63 clauses, and virtually all of them are relevant only to the times. Three have status today. One of them defends the position of the English church (the document was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury), one confirms the special position of London and some other cities, while the third says that no one can be imprisoned, or exiled or dealt with harshly except by the law of the land. That is the rock on which our system of law, especially that dealing with the powerful, is based. John’s successor, Henry III, issued a second version in 1225, and that was granted in return for a tax payment from the whole kingdom. That is the rock on which our systems of representation and taxation are based.

So Magna Carta really is important, not simply in England, but in Australia, and also in the USA (which also possesses a copy of the 1297 Charter). But its importance grew slowly. The notion of a fair trial for everyone took time to be accepted, and it reappeared during the turbulence of the 17th century, and the English Civil War. Charles I was not agreed to be above the law, at least by a new class of rebellious subjects. The Pilgrim Fathers took a copy of the document with them to America as a statement of the principles under which the new colony would operate. Abraham Lincoln used the document to justify his abhorrence of slavery.

It is nonetheless true that most Australians, and Americans for that matter, have the scantest knowledge of the Charter and its fundamental importance in defining the kinds of rules under which we live. Part of the reason is that we no longer teach history in schools as the story of human progress. Part of it is that there is so much more to know about everything. Part of it is that the relentless 24-hour news cycle means that something like the anniversary of Magna Carta is given the same amount of attention as anything else that happens on one day, like the outcome of a football match.

Yet somehow the essential truth that no one is above the law, the message of Magna Carta, is reinforced for us each time a leading politician is held accountable for misdeeds for which he is responsible, or a rich baron like Alan Bond is sent to prison. It is reinforced when a Senate refuses to agree to legislation, and the government has to negotiate or find other ways to obtain its end. It is reinforced when someone is found to have detained other human beings in what is virtual slavery, and sent to gaol.

When these most newsworthy vents occur we do not pay the credit to Magna Carta that we might, but we do know that something very important, something deep within our collective psyche, has been infringed. And we react accordingly: ‘Hey. you can’t do that!’ is the voice of the ordinary person relying on his or her strongly-felt view that there is some prohibition somewhere against an arbitrary act which they have witnessed.

I have no suggestion about what ought to be done. But we know, through history, that nations can lose important bits of their cultures if they are not defended. A great deal of Roman civilisation, not just the technical bits, like how to make glass and concrete (which disappeared), but its literature and learning, barely survived the downfall of the Roman Empire. The legal and constitutional bits of our civilisation are even more precious, which is why we ought to celebrate anniversaries like that of Magna Carta. It is worth much more to us all than the results of all the football matches played on the same day.




Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Mike says:

    As a principle that is all well and good but quite often for the individual getting justice is not possible. You are separated from justice by money and manipulation of the system. I will relate a personal tale which I still find stressful and disturbing even though it occurred over 20 years ago.

    In 1989 I separated because I just could not continue with the marriage. I had been advised by a counsellor because of my personal stress and state of mind it was the only course open to me. This meant leaving my wife and four children something I did not want to do because of the children. By early early 90 I was paying support and having access sessions to the children.

    In February 1990 the police visited me to deliver an AVO. In the document that was no mention of anything I had done of a threatening nature, my wife said she felt afraid. This had to go to court and in the process of that it was revealed that what it really was about was my wife had formed an opinion that I was molesting my daughter in the presence of my sons. The thrust actually was to deny me access particularly to my daughter. The access to my sons was not as yet denied that since I could not go near the house so contact was very difficult. I had to meet the eldest as he came home from school. A very strong effort I was to learn later was being made to gather evidence in order to have me charged. This was orchestrated I am fairly sure by a barrister in legal aid. My wife had unlimited funds in order to pursue this. It started to break down when welfare approached me. The start of the interview is pretty much accusatory asking why I was so unwilling to have my eldest live with me.

    My wife had stated that my eldest son should go into welfare because she couldn’t cope and that I was unwilling to look after him. It was news to me. Since I was living in a share house I moved from there to set up house to look after my eldest son. Since the house was large enough I told the next son that he was welcome and that it was up to him what he wanted to do. My wife found out he was thinking about this flew into a rage and told him he was to go immediately and if you didn’t she would get the police. So that is what transpired I mean my second son came as well. Meanwhile the whole thing about access to my daughter was proceeding. My legal advice saw to it that separate legal advice was provided to my daughter. That advice required a psychiatrist who specialised in such things to interview me and my daughter. His finding was that was no problem between me and my daughter and that did not believe anything untoward had ever happened.

    Very quickly my daughter spent two days being interviewed by police who made a report as to what a dreadful person I was. There was another woman who specialised in such things she brought forward evidence that everything had definitely happened on the basis of a questionnaire that my wife had filled out. Despite all of this I managed to get supervised access. Hurdles were put in the way of that which I won’t go into that but in the end it failed.

    So I was on the receiving end of a organised campaign to deny me access to my daughter and deny her access to me and her brothers. My youngest son came to live with me awhile later, that the story was similar as to the reasons why.

    So the wash up I spent over $20,000 in all but to no avail. I have not seen my daughter since she was five or six and she is now 30. She had a child when she is about 12 or 13 and is on her own except for her mother I guess. I tried to encourage my sons to make contact but they just did not want to have any contact with their mother. I do not call that justice for any of us.

    As a side note my by now ex-wife was to claim later to welfare that I had psychic powers and used a whistle to gain control over my daughter.

    • Margaret says:

      That is sad and I am sorry. Where are the ‘kind hearts and gentle people’? I wonder.

      • Mike says:

        Yes it is and it affected me more than I can say. But mainly I am saying a group of women (barrister, police, court counselor, children’s activist) used their position of power to pursue me. They never considered the collateral damage. My daughter was a weapon and my sons of no importance. They were not interested in evidence, never tried to verify the story in other words it was adversarial and nothing else. If I had been jailed and my sons fostered it would have tickled them to death. It was all women that did this but don’t think that I believe women are all like that.

        • Margaret says:

          I don’t believe in pedestals for women, nor in any particular deference to men. People are people and some are very misguided, even nasty. Best wishes.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    You lament than ‘we no longer teach history in schools’ and are also apprehensive about the tenuous link between important legal and constitutional artifacts of our civilisation and contemporary regard for them. As one who studied history through school and university, and subsequently did teach it in high schools, I appreciate your concerns.

    But of even greater significance are the implications of the statement ‘Eternal vigilance is the cost of liberty’. The great roots of the past can sustain our legal, constitutional and cultural frameworks but some pruning, hedging and yes, even lopping, are required on occasions.

    Contemporary political trends in work-arounds of the traditional relationship between legislatures, executives and courts are a case in point. There is a tendency to ‘bad-mouth’ even hight court decisions (activist judges etc) by some politicians or by-pass legal democratic processes under the guise of ‘operational’ matters. In a personal sense I have seen in the case of my brothers’ experience in the Supreme Court of NSW an instance of a vexatious, litigious, debarred solicitor who has caused enormous damage to the lives of many people – himself included, plus many tradesmen – through exploitation of legal processes. What became apparent was the high cost of lawyers, a long way from those on ordinary salaries. Ask Peter Slipper, for instance, and he’s qualified.

    The excessive preoccupation with money in our society (even eroding our cricketing culture – see 4Crns this evening) is a them evident in our broader world. Money, power, status, robber barons etc were around at the time of the Magna Carta so are hardly a new phenomenon but the threats they pose to our best traditions are still just as intense, perhaps even moreso.

    Even as I’m writing this, the election of a new HoR Speaker is occurring. The absurd low-brow theatre of Question Time has jolted many a visiting school child’s view of our parliamentary decorum over the years. So while we have solid foundations in our history, the vigilance of sustaining them can be quite demanding at times.

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