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Australia Day Address 2009 by Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO

Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO delivered the Australia Day address at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Tuesday 20 January 2009.


Professor Marie Bashir was born in Narrandera, New South Wales and is a medical graduate of the University of Sydney, a former medical resident officer of St Vincent’s Hospital and of The Children’s Hospital. She is a Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.


I am honoured to have been invited to deliver the Australia Day Address for 2009, and to join those of my fellow Australians who have shared with us, in previous years, their insights and reflections on this great national day of celebration and thanksgiving.

At the outset I record my respect for the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered this evening, the Gadigal people of the Eora clan, their ancestors and descendants, and indeed for all Australia’s indigenous people, whose enduring culture has nurtured this continent for tens of thousands of years.

For many Australians, not least our indigenous people, January the 26th brings forth an abundance of intense, and sometimes conflicting, emotions. But for all of us it is an occasion to give thanks for our extraordinary good fortune – for the unique beauty of our land, the diversity of its wildlife and natural riches, above all for the strength and custodians of the country we love.

We give thanks that in a world beset by turbulence and anxiety, religious and racial conflict, economic upheaval, the threat of terrorism and the uncertainties of climate change, Australians live together as one people in a nation blessed by political stability and social harmony.

This is a time when we acknowledge the builders of our nation, and I want to speak this evening of one such individual, one of my predecessors in this office – Lachlan Macquarie, the bicentenary of whose appointment will occur this year. Macquarie was appointed Governor on 8 May 1809; he arrived at Sydney Cove on 28 December that year, and four days later, on 1 January 1810, began his 12 momentous years in office. I should add that among his many innovations, he was the first Governor to give official recognition to Australia Day – in 1818, and decreed a public holiday for government workers.

Like so much of his legacy, that observance has endured. And today, as we look back on Macquarie’s life and career, it is striking how much of it seems relevant to the concerns of modern Australia.

It may be unwise for those in high public office to indulge in hero- worship. But I readily acknowledge that Lachlan Macquarie is among my heroes. And perhaps I admire him too much to be wholly objective in my assessment. I came late to a deeper understanding of the man and his works. My education was largely in science, and only in recent years have I learned of the immense scale of his achievements.

possessions a land-grant document signed by Macquarie in 1812 – though whether this makes me the unacknowledged legal owner of a large part of George Street I leave for others to decide.

It has been remarked before that an aura of failure, frustration and rejection has too often been the reward of many of our national leaders. It was certainly true of many of the best known colonial governors. Phillip left office dispirited and exhausted. Bligh was overthrown in a military coup – the lessons of which were superbly recounted in last year’s Australia Day Address by Chief Justice James Spigelman, the Lieutenant-Governor. And sadly, it must be said, Lachlan Macquarie was another victim of misfortune – denigrated by many during his term of office and discredited in official circles in Britain.

Yet he stands today as one of the greatest of Australian governors, a true pioneer of the nation, unmatched for vision, magnanimity, compassion, and zest for accomplishment. He was, I believe, the founder of modern Australia. Indeed he was the first Governor to refer officially to Australia by that name, in 1817 – endorsing the name used by Matthew Flinders.

Certainly no governor came to office with a richer fund of experience or a deeper apprehension of life’s trials and hardships. He was born of humble beginnings in Scotland on the tiny isle of Ulva in the Hebrides and worked on the family farm.

army as a volunteer. He served during the American War of Independence in New York, Charleston, Canada and Jamaica – and in Egypt against Napoleon’s armies – before accompanying his regiment to India in 1788, the year the Australian colony was born. He had married his first wife, Jane Jarvis, and taken her with him to Bombay, later losing her to tuberculosis in Macau.

By the age of 40 he was already a seasoned traveller – hardened by war, very much a man of the world, well known in influential circles in London. Returning to Britain in April 1807 after service in India, he narrowly escaped drowning when a freak wave struck his ship while crossing the Persian Gulf. This was at a place called Bushire, which has no known connection with anyone of my acquaintance. Unable to travel through the Mediterranean because of the war with France, Macquarie journeyed overland via Baghdad, through Persia and north to St Petersburg, then via Denmark and Sweden to London. After such adventures, a mere six-month voyage to New South Wales would have seemed routine.

Yet for all his outstanding qualifications, he was not the British Government’s first choice for the job. The man chosen as Bligh’s successor was Brigadier-General Miles Nightingall, who resigned through ill health before his departure for New South Wales. Macquarie, already designated Lieutenant-Governor, offered himself as Governor and was subsequently appointed.

He was then 48 years old. In November 1807, he had married his second wife Elizabeth Campbell, who proved to be an ideal partner.

Any Governor in our history. Only Sir Roden Cutler – in very different times – had a longer tenure in office.

In assessing Macquarie’s achievements, we must take account of the colony as he found it – primitive, divided, demoralised. In his own vividly dismissive phrase, the colony “was barely emerging from an infantile imbecility.” M.H. Ellis, one of his biographers, wrote:

The country was divided by faction as a result of the Bligh rebellion, and was almost starving; its morals were in ‘the lowest state of debasement’. Public buildings were in ruins; roads and bridges were impassable. There was no ‘public credit or private confidence’.

Macquarie’s first step towards mending these depressing conditions – Ellis went on – was to bring together the warring sections of the colony though the institution of official gatherings and community functions, among which the colony’s first horse races and agricultural fairs were notable.i

That was Macquarie’s way – reflected still in the Australian preference for conciliation and consensus, for negotiation and discussion rather than the brute exercise of authority.

It may be going too far to suggest that the success of the Sydney Festival in January is a legacy of Macquarie’s liking for community celebrations, but I have no doubt that if he could have staged a fireworks display on New Year’s Eve he would happily have done so inherited, which he immediately set about transforming.

In the years that followed, he instituted a period of unprecedented progress. And in many ways he set the pattern, and defined the priorities of enlightened public administration in the modern era. He built schools, hospitals, roads – what we like to call infrastructure – on a scale not seen before. He instituted our system of public and private education.

We see his influence today in the emphasis given to education by all Australian governments.

Two hundred years ago he saw the role of education in building a nation and made it one of his first priorities. So today, when we hear talk of an education revolution, remember Macquarie thought of it first. At the end of his governorship, one-fifth of the colony’s revenue was being spent on educational services.

To a large extent, Macquarie established the nation’s economy – an environment in which commerce and manufacturing could flourish. In 1813 he introduced coinage; in 1817 the colony’s first bank – the Bank of New South Wales – opened its doors. Under Macquarie, the colony acquired its first courthouses, its first magistrates, its first places of public worship, its first independent newspaper.

When he left office in 1821, he could point to 265 public works carried out during his term, many designed by Francis Greenway, the former convict appointed civil architect – roads to Parramatta and the Blue Mountains, the five planned towns, including Richmond, Liverpool and Windsor, built beyond reach of floodwaters from the Hawkesbury River. The city of Bathurst was largely his creation. Campbelltown was named creativity and zeal. Many of Sydney’s streets bear the names he chose, including the fine thoroughfare which he named after himself – a privilege no politician would dare exercise today.

But his vision extended far beyond Sydney. He encouraged exploration to expand the supply of pastoral land – famine being an ever-present threat in a colony relying on shipments of food. After the successful crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813, the road was commissioned the following year and built in an extraordinary six months as a gateway to the pasture lands beyond.

I quote Ellis again – Macquarie promoted many cultural and civil amenities… He encouraged the establishment of a benevolent society, a savings bank and a library. He can be accounted the first vice-regal supporter of local literature and the only Governor in history to appoint a “poet laureate” – Michael Massey Robinson, whose stipend was the welcome annual gift of two cows.

Today, of course, we reward our artists and writers in more suitable currency, but not, perhaps, more generously.

Another of Macquarie’s priorities – another link with the Australia of today – was his emphasis on public health. He showed a concern for the sick, the poor, the neglected and the marginalised beyond anything required by the duties of office. With Elizabeth’s support, he took a particular interest in the welfare of children, especially those of the destitute and abandoned. I have no doubt that Macquarie and his wife crime. Elizabeth’s intellectual independence and acumen proved major strengths in the implementation of Macquarie’s reforms. His undisguised admiration for his wife’s abilities was evidence, I believe, of the value he placed on women as equal partners in both marriage and society at large.

Early in his administration, encouraged by the Reverend William Cowper, of St. Philip’s Church, he presided over a meeting to set up the Benevolent Society, which was later detached from the church to function as an independent agency. The Society’s aims were “to relieve the poor, the distressed, the aged and the infirm, and to encourage industrious habits among the indigent poor …”

For a contemporary Governor, especially one with a professional interest in mental illness and the plight of the abused and the traumatised, Macquarie’s example has been an inspiration. In 1810 he established the colony’s first psychiatric hospital, the Castle Hill Asylum, which received its first 30 patients from Parramatta Gaol. It is remarkable that, almost 200 years ago, we had a governor with a sympathetic understanding of the needs of the mentally ill.

His attitude to Aboriginal people was similarly enlightened, though it is important that this not be exaggerated. Macquarie was a military governor, a man of his time, and in Ellis’s words, “did not hesitate to instigate military measures against the Aborigines in 1816 when they mistook his friendliness for weakness.” But he opened the first school for Aboriginal children, and made the first official attempts to settle native people in agriculture.

Account of Macquarie’s final parting from the Aboriginal chiefs he had grown to know and respect. In the last days of his governorship he went with Elizabeth to say goodbye to the clans at Parramatta. Ritchie wrote: “As the Aborigines feasted on roast beef washed down with copious draughts of beer, he examined the children of the Native Institution [which he had established at Parramatta in 1815]. He knew that the rapid increase in British population and the progress of British agriculture had driven these people from their ancient habitations; he also knew how contact with Europeans in the townships had degraded the Blacks…” ii

I firmly believe that Macquarie felt a sense of shame for the treatment of Australia’s Aborigines, and that his feelings towards them set in train the long process of reconciliation culminating in last year’s historic apology, made on the nation’s behalf with the support of all political parties.

Perhaps there was condescension and calculation in Macquarie’s treatment of the first Australians. But there was also, I believe, genuine benevolence, an innate goodness of heart.

Manning Clark, with his usual note of ironic detachment, recorded in the second volume of his History of Australia that many Aboriginal parents had enticed their children away from the Parramatta institution because, as Macquarie noted with regret, “the natives … had not sufficient confidence in Europeans to believe that the institution was solely intended for their advantage and improvement.” Given what we know today, one can hardly blame them.

Earns our respect and admiration today. This was more than humanitarianism; it was nation-building. The colony needed a workforce, the larger the better, and Macquarie believed that when a prisoner had discharged his debt to society he should be “eligible for any situation which he has, by a long term of upright conduct, proved himself worthy of filling.” Bligh had granted only two pardons during his term as Governor. Macquarie, between 1810 and 1820, granted 366 pardons, 1,365 conditional pardons and 2,319 tickets of leave. According to Ritchie, the policy of emancipation was “the child of Macquarie’s heart, more instinctual than theoretical”.

In his softer moments – Ritchie wrote in 1986 – he viewed the convicts as children of misfortune. Believing in the intrinsic worth of individuals, he offered them hope; he aimed to encourage redemption, to promote self-respect and, ultimately, a social regeneration. He nurtured a dream of what the new country might become … In raising people to positions of trust and authority, he drew no distinction between the free and the freed; his object was to eliminate faction and to introduce harmony.

Can we not see in Macquarie’s example of tolerance and humanity the beginnings of the great Australian tradition of the ‘fair go’ – the spirit of egalitarianism, the sense of fair play that many regard as our defining characteristic as a people? He believed that everyone deserved a second chance, whatever his past deeds or reputation. And to a large extent that belief was his undoing. It led to the appointment of J. T. Bigge as a commissioner to inquire into the colonial administration.

Bigge’s damning report was deeply wounding to Macquarie’s pride and principles of fairness for which he stood throughout his term.

Generosity to others was the mark of his character and in many ways the central theme of his administration – reflected today in our reaching out to the people of our region, the readiness of individual Australians to open their hearts to the victims of natural disaster, the spirit of volunteerism that did so much to make the 2000 Olympics such a memorable achievement.

What follows are some lines sent to me by Marie Sullivan, a fellow Macquarie enthusiast and chair of the Macquarie Committee, which is planning a number of celebratory events for 2010. I have Marie’s permission to use her words – Macquarie realised – wrote Marie – that for people to be good their environment needed to encourage independence, goodness and self-respect.

For this, it was necessary to have an abundance of the things we associate with a civil society – churches, schools, hospitals, roads, journalists and newspapers, agricultural and farming pursuits, racing carnivals, lawyers and courts, artists and architects, surveyors and explorers, annual festivals, banks, botanists and botanic gardens, places where the disabled, the mentally ill, the convicted prisoner and the young could be adequately and safely housed and cared for; urban planners and carefully laid out towns, buildings and lighthouses of architectural magnificence and adornment; leadership with probity, kindness and vision. Few or none of these things existed prior to the Macquaries’ arrival in New South Wales.

Perhaps the true grandeur and pathos of Macquarie’s story are best summed up in his own words. All that he passionately believed about his policies of emancipation, the motivating impulse of charity and love that underlay all his actions, was poured out in a submission he wrote to Commissioner Bigge in justification of his policies. Macquarie’s words, as we know, would have little effect on Bigge’s decisions. Bigge sided with the malcontents, the disgruntled free settlers. Increasingly dispirited, Macquarie had tended his resignation on three occasions.

This eventually took effect in 1821.

But there is a pleasing irony in the thought that were it not for the conflict of these men, we might have waited much longer for the rudiments of a parliamentary system.

Bigge recommended that no future Governor should be allowed to rule as an autocrat, so a Legislative Council was appointed to advise the Governor – though it was not until 1856 that the Council was granted legislative powers.

Reading Macquarie’s submission today, one senses not only the depth of its passion and sincerity; we hear, in the cadences of his prose, with its measured repetitions and rhetorical emphases, the language of modern political discourse. As in so many things, he was ahead of his time. And what a politician he would have made today! Here is part of what he wrote to Bigge (and for the printed version of this address I have adopted modern conventions of punctuation).

At my first entrance into this colony, I felt as you do … that some of the most meritorious men … most willing to exert themselves in the public service, were men who had been convicts! … You already know that above nine-tenths of the population of this colony are or have been convicts, or the children of convicts. You have yet perhaps to learn that these are the people who have quietly submitted to the laws and regulations of the colony, altho’ informed by some of the free settlers and officers of government that they were illegal! These are the men who have tilled the ground, who have built houses and ships, who have made wonderful efforts … in agriculture, in maritime speculations and in manufactures. These are the men who, placed in the balance … in the opposite scale to those free settlers …you will find to preponderate [in character, both moral and political].iii

I said earlier that Macquarie would happily have staged a fireworks display if it had been possible to do so. And indeed one such display was staged on the eve of his departure. Thousands gathered in the streets of Sydney to farewell him.

According to Manning Clark – Macquarie Place and Barracks Square were brilliantly illuminated … the humble cottager vied with the proud and liberal merchant in displays of esteem and affection to their beloved Governor. .. On the Friday night the towns of Parramatta and Liverpool were illuminated in demonstrations of joy and satisfaction … while [others] lit ample and cheering bonfires, the roarings of which were heard for the most part of the night amidst the display of fireworks.

Next day, on the parade ground, [Macquarie] bid farewell to the people who had gathered for the ceremony … His constant maxim, he told them had been to reward merit and punish vice without regard to rank, class or description of persons. He had found the colony in a state of rapid deterioration: threatened with famine, discord … and the public buildings in a state of decay. He had left it in a very different condition: the face of the country was greatly improved; agriculture flourished; manufactories had been established; commerce had been revived; roads and bridges had been built; the inhabitants generally were opulent and happy.iv

Today, as I travel the length and breadth of the State in my official duties, I see the legacy of Lachlan Macquarie in so much of our lifestyle and shared values. I see it in the courage of our farmers, the men and women on the land as they contend with drought and other trials and misfortunes. I see it in the spirit of our fighting men and women abroad, who, like Macquarie, serve their country with dedication and professionalism. I see it in the character of our people – their warmth and friendliness, their lack of pretension, their pragmatism, their rejection of vainglory and superficial status, their belief in the ‘fair go’, their determination and strength of will in the face of adversity. I see it in our people’s capacity for hard work, the readiness of so many to lend a helping hand, to give every deserving man and woman a second chance, the belief in the ever-present opportunity for renewal and the limitless possibilities for human betterment.

And seeing all this, I have no doubt that when the Australian people confront – as we assuredly will – the huge challenges that lie ahead of our nation, the economic problems resulting from the present global crisis, the inevitable threats to unemployment and job security, the disparities of wealth and opportunity that persist in even the most fortunate societies, we will have the strength to face them squarely, to acknowledge them honestly, to meet them bravely and, in time, to overcome them.

The Australia of today, whatever the difficulties we face, would have been a source of great satisfaction, indeed of great pride, to Lachlan Macquarie. Sadly, however, he returned to England a broken-hearted man and died in London on 1 July 1824.

In The Australian, the newspaper established during his term, William Wentworth quoted these lines of Alexander Pope – Statesman, yet friend to truth! Of soul sincere, In action faithful, and in honour clear, who broke no promise, serv’d no private end, Who gained no title, and who lost no friend.

It was a fitting tribute to a man who turned a squalid penal colony into an infant nation – a fledgling democracy, robust, self-confident and proud – and whose life and example we recall with gratitude in this period of his bicentenary.


  1. M.H. Ellis from his article on Macquarie in the Australian Encyclopaedia, volume V, Sydney: The Grolier Society of Australia, 1965 and Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1958.
  2. John Ritchie, Lachlan Macquarie: a Biography, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1986.
  3. M.H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1958, pp 222-3.
  4. Manning Clark, A History of Australia Volume 1: From the Earliest Times to the Age of Macquarie, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1968.