Monday, October 31, 2011

On Ned Kelly and terrorism

In the last of a series of Australian-themed posts, I'd like to comment on this display I saw at the Melbourne Gaol which sparked my interest:

The text underneath reads as follows: "If the Kelly uprising had occurred in the 21st century then Ned would have escaped execution for murder as Victoria outlawed this punishment in 1975. But would it have been as simple as that? With his barely concealed political agenda and his push for a breakaway republic in the north-east, Ned could have been tried under Australia's ant-terrorism laws. His attacks upon the police, his threats towards people in high office and his possession of a bomb at Glenrowan would have given the prosecution much useful ammunition. How much imagination does it take to see Ned in the dock, shackled and dressed in an orange boiler-suit?"

Anyone familiar with the tale will be aware that Ned found himself to be largely a victim of circumstances, fighting on behalf of an oppressed Irish Catholic underclass, whilst his boldness and character has made him something of an Australian folk hero over the years.  But of course the same could be said of many terrorists, as it's really a matter of perspective. That said, could we really brand Ned a terrorist?  The Australian Criminal Code defines a terrorist act as an action or threat "made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause" done with the intention of "coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government" or "the public".  The act needs to fulfill one of a list of requirements of violence or sabotage, such as physical harm to a person or disrupting transport systems. The act seems remarkably broad and would capture, for instance, insurgency where only military personnel are targeted (it is somewhat broader than the draft of the international "Comprehensive Convention on Terrorism" which requires that the act be designed to intimidate a population). 
In his "Jerilderie" letter to the police, Ned Kelly demands that the rich donate money to widows, orphans and the poor if they want to stay alive. A political demand? Perhaps.  Probably more weighty are the Kelly gang's plans to create an independent "republic of north east Victoria" and related attempts to ambush a train-load of police at Glenrowan (the failed ambush leading to Ned Kelly's apprehension).  In an odd way, it seems that Ned probably could have been caught out by the present legislation despite never harming or intending to harm any civilians (unless we include the "hostage-taking" at Glenrowan, where the gang organised games and events to keep the hostages entertained!).

If anything this tale provides an interesting insight into the ambiguity over "terrorism" and the pervasive problems we have with defining it today.

Recomended song: Bernard Fanning - Shelter for my Soul


  1. No way in the world is Ned to be classed as a terrorist.That is beyond ridiculous,and anyone who says he is is an ignorant fool.

  2. Anon: thanks for making me chuckle!

    Just in the news, apparently Ned Kelly's remains are about to be "returned" to his ancestors so that they can conduct a proper burial! Only 130 years too late...