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Australia

Sep 24, 2014

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Draconian security laws are rushed through both houses of Parliament targeting a single religious group amid bloodcurdling media frenzy.

No, this isn’t 2014 but 1868 — when the victims weren’t Muslims but Catholics. And the case has some stark parallels with Tony Abbott’s rekindled war on terror.

At Sydney’s Middle Harbour suburb of Clontarf on March 12, 1868, a royal visitor, the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s second son, was the victim of an assassination attempt. An Irishman named Henry James O’Farrell, recently released from a lunatic asylum, fired a pistol at the duke, wounding him in the back.

The shooting unleashed a political and media witch-hunt unmatched in the colony’s history. Public hatred was whipped up against the Irish and Roman Catholics. Leading the chorus of hatred was New South Wales premier Henry Parkes, who “revelled in this wave of bigotry, and rode upon it in a tempest of disgraceful popularity”, according to Michael Davitt in his book Life and Progress in Australasia:

“Irish workers were dismissed from workshops, Irish girls discharged from domestic service, and a reign of political and party terror swept the country. Parkes paid large sums of money to a noted scoundrel to supply him with ‘revelations’ about the ‘Catholic conspiracy’.”

Parkes’ paid informer made the inflammatory claim that O’Farrell was the head of a “band of Fenian conspirators” who were intent on “exterminating the royal family”.

Sydney newspapers accused O’Farrell of acting on the orders of the “Fenian Brotherhood” — later proved to be a media invention.

Parkes rushed through both houses of Parliament a Treason Felony Bill, which, among things, proposed to imprison anyone who refused to drink a toast to the Queen’s health and a life sentence for anyone proposing the separation of Australia from the British Crown.

O’Farrell’s barrister, Butler Cole Aspinall, fresh from defending some of the Eureka Stockaders, raised a defence of “not guilty” by reason of insanity. This was rejected by Judge Alfred Cheeke at Darlinghurst Criminal Court.

Appeals for clemency — one from the wounded duke himself — were also rejected, and O’Farrell, 35, was hanged at Darlinghurst Prison on April 21 on the charge of attempted murder. The English prince, who was also the Earl of Kent and the Earl of Ulster, recovered completely and left Sydney in early April to travel home to England.

A pre-eminent parliamentary committee that investigated the Fenian conspiracy theories later found that “there is no evidence to warrant the belief that the crime of O’Farrell was the result of any conspiracy of any organisation existing in the country”.

Reading today’s headlines made me ask — haven’t we been here before?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is marching truculently in Parkes’ footsteps in referring to the Arab terrorists as a “death cult” and raising the spectre of beheadings in Martin Place and Parramatta. He has placed federal Parliament under armed police control on the basis of state-intercepted telephone “chatter”, which he hasn’t disclosed, and he has sent warplanes and Special Forces to the Middle East for undisclosed war operations.

Abbott should take note of Parkes’ misconduct during the O’Farrell affair: it  included concealing the fact he had the would-be assassin’s diary and that he wildly embellished the “Fenian plot” story, which was subsequently exposed in Parliament and publicly condemned.

“The flawed Parkes was in due course the ‘Father of Federation’ … but in the O’Farrell case of 1868 he demonstrated how dangerous it is when senior politicians involve themselves directly in the process of criminal prosecution,” wrote Dr Gregory Woods in his book A History of Criminal Law in NSW 1788-1900.

For the moment, Abbott is luxuriating in the front-page media hysteria he has egged on. It is taking the heat off his deep domestic problems and offering the prospect of rising electoral popularity (going to war will do that … for a while).

What he hasn’t noticed is that his Liberal predecessor, John Howard, was malingering on the media circuit this week still trying to buy public understanding for his eager participation in the Iraq War on the basis of CIA and Pentagon lies about weapons of mass destruction.

Howard’s entire career is disgraced by his duplicity over the Iraq war and “children overboard”. He has never recovered, but swaggering Abbott seems not to notice or to care.

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