I saw a discussion on Facebook a couple of years ago in response to someone asking who among all the world’s great people would readers most like to have dinner with. Someone nominated Captain James Cook, another said Winston Churchill, and inevitably I suppose, someone said that he would most like to have dinner with Ned Kelly, a man whom he regarded as head and shoulders above all other contenders. That response made me wonder if he knew anything at all about the truly great men of history, or even of the truly great Australians. Ever since I’ve wondered if one of the contributing factors to the veneration of Ned Kelly is ignorance about who the truly great Australians really are. Could people regard Ned Kelly as Australia’s greatest hero because he is the only famous Australian they’ve heard of? If we were better informed about our true heroes, would Ned Kelly still rate a mention?
These thoughts led me to a Google search for a list of the greatest Australians and I quickly found several. On Wikipedia the list of the Top 50 Greatest Australians doesnt include Ned Kelly. Another list of the top 200 ‘most significant Australians’ lists Kelly along with Ben Hall in the category of “Notorious Australians”
The Wikipaedia entry was based on a 2013 Perth Now newspaper article “The greatest of all – our 50 Top Australians” The following interesting read is part of that article:
“Flicking through the pages of history, I found myself working within four parameters when deciding if someone qualified. They focused on:
* Those whose efforts have helped define who we are as a people and how Australia is perceived as a country.
* Trailblazers. Those stepping into the unknown or doing something for the first time.
* Those who left a legacy for others to admire or benefit from.
* Those who inspired us.
Trimming the number down to 50 names was tortuous and coming up with rankings proved near-impossible. There were many hurdles. Why should someone in public office or on the sporting field be any worthier than a private quiet achiever with a dream? How does a rock star rank above an unknown soldier about to go over the top with his heart hammering in fear and his head thinking of home? What setback does history play when judging someone’s efforts 150 years ago compared with the luxury of living in the modern era?”
Here’s a few from this List. Alongside these true Australian heroes and heroines Ned Kellys claims to greatness and to legendary status looks like a sick joke.
No. 39. CAROLINE CHISHOLM Caroline Chisholm arrived in Australia in 1838 to find migrant women from Britain lying homeless and begging on the street. As others walked by, she vowed to make a difference. Over the next 10 years the daughter of a wealthy English landowner became a thorn in the side of the establishment – writing letters, hounding bureaucrats and pestering the Governor to make conditions better for those arriving in the colony. She found lodgings and jobs for more than 10,000 women and girls. As a salute to her achievements her portrait was chosen for our original $5 note – the first woman other than the Queen to appear on Australian currency.
No. 35. VINCENT LINGIARI In 1966 Vincent Lingiari, a small, proud Kadijeri man, led a walk-off at a Northern Territory cattle station over frugal pay and brutal work conditions. It started a nine-year battle to return land rights to the Gurindji people and led to the 1976 NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Lingiari’s stance made him an iconic figure representing the struggle of Aboriginal people. His story was also etched in Australian musical history in the touching Paul Kelly song From Little Things Big Things Grow.
No. 34. ELIZABETH KENNY In the early 20th century polio epidemics among children rattled the world. Doctors believed those affected should be put in splints, keeping their legs locked. But Sister Elizabeth Kenny, a bush nurse with no formal qualifications, believed hot towels, massage and exercise were the key. It worked. Despite the establishment dismissing her theories, she cured hundreds of children across Australia and then did the same in the US, where she was named America’s Most Admired Woman in 1952.
No.14. NANCY WAKE Has there been a braver woman? She went to Paris to party in the 1930s, but saw instead Jews being tortured by the Nazis and vowed to make a difference. Joining the French Resistance, she inflicted her own pain on the enemy, even killing a German sentry with her bare hands to stop him setting off an alarm. For years she smuggled food and supplies to the Allies and helped thousands of troops escape through Europe. The Gestapo tagged her “The White Mouse” because she always seemed to slip through their fingers despite being at the top of their Most Wanted list with a five million-franc price on her head.
No.13. SIR EDWARD ‘WEARY’ DUNLOP A revered figure in history. As skeletal Diggers lay around him barely breathing in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, Edward Dunlop stood tall. Each day for three years he eyeballed his heartless captors, protecting his men who were forced to build the notorious Burma-Thailand “Death Railway”. A surgeon who played two rugby union Tests for Australia before World War II, he was tortured for protecting those he considered were too sick to work on the railway.
No. 9. EDITH COWAN A tough woman with a compassionate calling. Born in Geraldton in 1861, she was only seven when her mother died and just a teenager when her father was hanged for killing his second wife. After leaving school she became a pioneer advocate for women’s and children’s rights. In 1921 she won the seat of West Perth in the WA election, the first woman in Australia to enter Parliament. Having fought tirelessly for years to improve conditions for the vulnerable, she set about making changes. Two of her most important legacies were giving women financial security after a divorce and setting up the Children’s Protection Society, which was the precursor of the Children’s Court. Her significance in Australian history is recognised today with a university named after her and her portrait on our $50 note.
No. 6. EDDIE MABO When the British arrived in Australia in the late 18th century they believed the country was “terra nullius” – no one’s land so they could claim whatever territory they wanted and do as they please. In 1936 an aboriginal boy was born on Murray Island in the Torres Strait who would change that forever. Thats him in the photo at the top of the page. Eddie Mabo used to listen to his parents tell stories about their timeless connection with the land. When he was working as a gardener at James Cook University he met a lawyer who offered to help him make a case challenging the claim of “terra nullius”. After a 10-year battle Eddie lost even though he was convinced he was right. So he took his claim to the High Court. Weary from fighting and riddled with cancer, he died in January 1992, aged just 55. Five months later the High Court ruled in his favour : the land does belong to the indigenous people. Apart from changing the law, Eddie Mabo’s public showdown with authorities also educated many Australians about the true spiritual bond the indigenous people have with the land beneath us.
The entire list is a wonderfully uplifting document to browse, because it shows, as the few cases mentioned illustrates, that there is a huge and varied throng of inspirational, brave, visionary, self-sacrificing and determined Australian men and women whose lives should be celebrated by everyone.
Of course, it should hardly need pointing out that I am not attempting to say that Ned Kelly and the outbreak were non-events or that there isn’t a multitude of facets of the story that are absorbing and fascinating to explore and to study. That would be a silly denial of the bleeding obvious! Undoubtedly, Ned Kellys story is a fascinating true crime story about a complex and ultimately tragic young man. However, when compared with any one of the lives of those truly great top 50 Australians, Ned Kellys life of whining about being hard done by, his deliberate adoption of a life of crime, his boasting and bravado, and his short life as a fugitive multiple murderer looks miserable, small-scale, self-centred and more or less completely devoid of anything inspirational. Its a sad story set in interesting times of a seriously mixed up Australian. There is very little if anything that’s great about it.
Simply, Ned Kelly was not a great Australian. He was notorious, he was colourful, he was complex, he is famous, he was a lot of things but he didn’t once do anything that is worth celebrating, and he was never great. People who think he was a great Australian should probably better familiarise themselves with what true greatness is and what a truly great life looks like. Then if asked which great Australian they would most like to have dinner with, instead of thinking of having dinner with a notorious self promoting paranoid liar, a thief and murderer, they might instead nominate a real hero, someone like Weary Dunlop, Nancy Wake or Eddie Mabo.
To the remaining few who continue their blind infatuation with a violent crim, and to anyone wondering about who our role models and icons should be : It’s time to move on from a fake hero and replace Kelly with a real hero – you have plenty to choose from! “Weary” Dunlop would be a fine example of a life worth celebrating – why not make him your Australian Hero?