MODERN DRINKERS RECOGNISE RUM as a spirit distilled from sugarcane (more often specifically, molasses). These days, unlike those of Australia’s original penal settlement, you can’t drink it in jail. Eddie Obeid, formerly New South Wales Minister, formerly member of the Legislative Council, formerly OAM, will have none for a period of at least three years, and up to five. That’s not likely to concern Eddie, who is reportedly not a big drinker, or indeed, anyone else. That Obeid has been sentenced is justice, no more or less. But how much does our current political culture owe to the rum days?
Light rums are clear and sweet, dark rums the colour of tea. You have it in cocktails or on the rocks if you’re a wanker, you have it in pre-mixed coke cans if you’re a yob (to extend TISM’s dialectic). Eighteenth century definitions of ‘rum’ were more broad, really encompassing any kind of distilled spirits made from other bases, in the same way ‘corn’ was used interchangeably with oats, wheat, and other staples. Everyone knew, though what they were talking about when the first barrels of it were brought over ship sides with the salt pork and flour in 1788, and what it was for. It was two things: a currency to trade, and a commodity that got you drunk.
There’s some historical argument about how corrupt and how rum-sodden the first British settlement in NSW was. Were the first military and land elites of the NSW Corps primarily motivated by honour, greed, boredom, avarice, sex, racism, ambition, anomie? Did exile to the Antipodes make them worse or better than their violent, grasping, crooked counterparts back Home? We know they fought viciously amongst themselves, we know they—and the new colonist society generally—drank to destructive levels, we know they were violent expropriators of land and life, we know lots of them looked to the main chance and whatever they could lay their hands on. It’s only a wonder there are not more Australian Westerns.
There’s a familiar refrain that we hear every now and then about corruption in NSW, that it’s an endemic disease of our politics, our own peculiar heritage. It’s true that the basic pattern is depressingly unchanged: access to political power brings favoured businessmen wealth in the form of land deals, business concessions, and most of all, rights to minerals. Good government delivers the goods, whether you’re dealing with your mate the Mayor for your DA, the Minister for your exploration licence, or the Treasury for your Casino. Sydney is after all, when you look at the maps, built upon successive concentric rings of really good business deals.
As attractive and literary as it is, I don’t accept this attitude that their corruption is ours. It elides everyone’s civic responsibility to not be corrupt, which ought to be a starting point. We are profoundly unlike the red-faced wool-coated elite of the 1790s to 1810s, and they are strange foreigners to us. Our politicians no longer insist upon points of honour, and the Domain doesn’t ring with gentlemanly pistol shots. Though I enjoy and admire her The Secret River, I don’t agree with Kate Grenville that we are able to so easily draw direct lines of inheritance from Colony to modernity in these things, or that the crimes of past people whose city we inhabit are necessarily our crimes too. Apart from any other matter, Sydney, even more than Australia, is an immigrant society, with a variety of increasingly different cultural traditions of politics (and different traditions of corruption!) from which to choose.
Heritage is a lot of things, valuable and loathsome. The attitude that crookedness on the part of public officials and the State is normal and somehow natural (if frowned upon) removes individual agency from our modern-day crooks. It’s not good enough: the equivalent of an historical Hey Officer Krupke argument, ‘I’m depraved on account I’m deprived’. New South Wales has a corrupt history, but that doesn’t excuse a current lack of integrity.