In the name of Macquarie


Two young men are dead and others are injured in the riots at Macquarie Fields west of Sydney. And, for me, one of the saddest aspects is the fact that the offending suburb bears the name ‘Macquarie’. I cannot think of any greater indictment of the policies followed by successive governments when dealing with our urban underclass than that some are living in a place named in honour of this particular colonial governor.

When I mentioned to friends who live in Sydney’s west, the bleak absurdity of placing people stripped of hope in a site named for Macquarie, they expressed surprise. To them he was nothing more than an early governor, the person who managed to get many streets and towns named in his praise. It seems there is some truth to the notion that those who forget history are condemned to relive it.

Jail gang Sydney NSW: A Earle, National Library

Jail gang Sydney NSW: A Earle, National Library

The name ‘Macquarie’ is everywhere in New South Wales. It is the label attached to prominent places. The Premier of New South Wales works in Governor Macquarie Tower and makes speeches in Parliament at Macquarie Street. Macquarie is a university and also the name of the largest merchant bank. It is in short, a name carrying with it prestige, almost like a stamp of quality.

I particularly admire the way that Macquarie Bank controls the world’s largest network of toll roads. Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who ruled New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land from 1810 to 1821 would have approved of that use of his name. He was a great builder of roads, and built the first toll road to Parramatta. He also facilitated the creation of the country’s first bank, the Bank of New South Wales, now unfortunately travelling under the name of ‘Westpac’. I doubt he would have had much to say in favour of some of the other directions taken by the domain he once controlled.

When Macquarie came to New South Wales, the colony had been rorted by the tender ministrations of the New South Wales Corps. They had seen the chance for ‘gentlemen’ to act like feudal lords, taking what they could from the hapless populace. And some of them did very well indeed. The basis of Macquarie’s policies was the ideal of giving every person, both convict and free, a fair go. He took a colony where the bulk of the population were from the English, Irish and Scottish underclass, and through decency and generosity (albeit combined with an extraordinary public works program) created the core of modern Australia.

Lachlan Macquarie

Lachlan Macquarie

Because one of the preferred solutions to Macquarie Fields seems to be to pull it all down and start again, it’s probably worth looking at what the original Macquarie did to turn the shambolic colony into a thriving society. It could be argued that today’s mob in Macquarie Fields are the cultural heirs of the 1950s slum dwellers of Surry Hills. These were in turn the grandchildren of the rag-tag populace of Pyrmont, the people who inspired Henry Parkes to create universal primary school education. The underclass are always with us, but good policy can decrease its number. Relocating the inhabitants is not the solution. This is how New South Wales was first settled – as a mass relocation of the rejects of the British Empire, thrown to a gulag at the end of the earth. The answer to the problem of how to deal with the current underclass may well lie in history; the story of how many of the rejects from previous generations became people with a future.

The most obvious part of Macquarie’s legacy to Australia was his town planning and architecture. He found narrow twisting muddy tracks, but saw wide streets, easily accessed. He created a series of interlinked towns with town squares and graceful public buildings. Because he was in essence an eighteenth century man, his public buildings were churches. These were built to be well-lit, with elegant proportions. Churches provided social glue, a place to hear a common language, for residents to absorb common values. In colonial Australia the clergy and their families were in effect social workers, educated people dedicated to help those less fortunate. Macquarie did his best to make their job achievable.

Macquarie’s second legacy was education. He spent up to 20 per cent of his budget on schools to encourage the children of convicts and free settlers alike to learn. He encouraged the creation of a library, as he knew that books were at the foundation of a civil society. He even started a school for Aboriginal children, although that particular cultural gulf was too wide. He encouraged exploration, so that Matthew Flinders was able to sail off in the Investigator and create the name ‘Australia’. He, along with his wife Elizabeth Campbell (after whom Campbelltown was named) even crossed the Blue Mountains.

But the most important part of Macquarie’s successful policy, the one that created the most outrage in London and the one that was most easily reversed after his departure, was his policy of forgiveness. When convicts completed their sentences or were freed, Macquarie no longer regarded them as criminals. The slate was wiped clean. Greenway was his architect. Redfern was a magistrate and surgeon. Mary Reiby, was one of the founders of the Bank of New South Wales. Some of them failed, but a remarkably high proportion of those given a break made good. He saw a society where former convicts were placed ‘on a footing of equality with the general population’. He wasn’t a wimp. There was a strong police force, well funded, but there were clear pathways to success, with the chance of a fresh start and help along the way.

We don’t do forgiveness very well any more. Punishment is the flavour of the day.

The hardened faces of Augustus Earle’s chain gang of 1830 look remarkably like the faces of the mob at Macquarie Fields. After Macquarie retired it became possible once more to deny a fair go to those at the bottom of the heap. Former convicts were banned from entering Parliament, or even becoming lawyers.

In modern Australia, for people seeking a break, it now matters more than ever which school, what parents, where the applicant lives. One hundred and ninety five years after Macquarie first landed in Sydney, both privilege and poverty are now more likely to be inherited than achieved. The worst school for educational opportunity is a poorly serviced state school. The worst parents are unemployed or former prisoners, and the worst suburb is Macquarie Fields.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.