Little Leaders

Christopher Henning’s review (SMH Sep 26-27) of a new biography of early C19th wheeler & dealer W.C. Wentworth, is worth quoting from:

“Like Australia’s landscape, with its weather-beaten mountain ranges that look more like hills to outsiders, the tectonic plates of Australian politics do not produce towering figures who dominate their time or grip posterity’s imagination. Our founding fathers’ names slip easily from memory – and more easily still slip the details of their conflicts and debates. Great issues are decided elsewhere. Out on the fringes of Western culture, Australia’s debates establish no general principle. They just tidy up local anomalies in principles set elsewhere”.

“So our leaders tend to be politicians, not statesmen – men (and more recently women) too closely engaged with the day-to-day to transcend it. If we are lucky, they will draw a line between the everyday and a general principle but usually there will be some self-serving quality to the link they make. Think of Kevin Rudd’s convenient logic in his prolix essays before and after he became prime minister”.

As Henning suggests, Wentworth may have been a quintessential Sydney ‘colourful personality’, dabbling in politics, law, publishing and above all property speculation. Even negotiating with Maori chiefs to buy the entire South Island of NZ in exchange for peppercorn rents! An occasional supporter of democratic reforms, as a wealthy squatter he also tried to limit the voting franchise to landholders, while creating a gerrymander for country voters. In other words, he was a chancer, with an eye on the main event of his own self-interest and self-aggrandisement.

Any resemblance to the current federal Member for Wentworth is entirely coincidental, but its indeed an aptly-named political seat.

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