Archive for February, 2019

16 February
Comments Off on Question time in federal parliament

Question time in federal parliament



* The government will consider three measures Labor has proposed to foreign worker laws in return for supporting passage of the China free trade deal through parliament.


But Trade Minister Andrew Robb says changes to the FTA that discriminate against the Chinese won’t be tolerated.

* Australian wine is very popular in Canada and the Trans-Pacific Partnership will help increase exports currently worth just $170 million a year, according to Mr Robb.

* Treasurer Scott Morrison couldn’t say by how much revenue has fallen between the 2014 and 2015 budgets. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen informed him it was $52 billion.


The importance of free trade to ensuring a vibrant economic future for Australia. Cue Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: “The future of our country, the destiny of our country lies in us being a successful trading nation.”


Its safeguards for Australian jobs under the China free-trade deal; how much Scott Morrison knows or doesn’t yet know about the budget and the economy; what the government plans for penalty rates.


“If the treasurer doesn’t know he should sit down,” deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek chides Morrison over a question about living standards.

“It’s incredible, any more questions like this and we’ll be here for another five minutes,” Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce rebukes his opposite number Joel Fitzgibbon.


“That’s a first,” Labor MP Ed Husic when the Speaker notes deputy PM Warren Truss had finished his answer.

“You can’t phone a friend,” Husic chiding Morrison and pointing to his predecessor Joe Hockey, as the treasurer struggles with an answer about the budget.

“Do you have one of those laser sticks?” Labor’s Michael Danby after Christopher Pyne notes the government has a “laser-like focus on jobs”.

“Not in Malaysia, Barnaby,” Labor’s Graham Perrett informs the agriculture minister for saying pork is the most consumed meat in the world.


“I hope the Year 12 HSC economics students did not see Morrison’s answer on the budget. They would fail if they wrote that in their exam,” Stephen Koukoulas.

“Not stumps yet, but has there ever been an all female 94a,” Graham Perrett says of the Speaker’s decision to boot Tanya Plibersek and Terri Butler from the chamber.

16 February
Comments Off on Senate vote reform still on cards: Brandis

Senate vote reform still on cards: Brandis

The federal government has not backed away from changing the Senate voting system, says cabinet minister George Brandis.


One of the roles of Senator Brandis – the new government leader in the Senate – is to keep independent and minor party senators on side to pass laws and motions.

However, there are concerns within the government that changing the way in which senators are elected could put crossbenchers offside.

In 2014, a bipartisan committee recommended voters be allowed to mark preferences above the line on Senate ballot papers or not to have to number all the boxes below the line.

This would reduce the chance of situations arising where senators can be elected with less than one per cent of the primary vote, through complex preference arrangements.

Asked on Sky News whether the voting system changes had been dumped, Senator Brandis said: “I don’t think it has been backed away from.”

“The Senate crossbenchers have their own views and they want to be constructive participants in this dialogue,” he said.

He did not believe any senators wanted to “game the system”.

“What they want is to have is a sensible Senate voting system that allows for the fact that the Senate will inevitably reflect a greater variety and diversity of views that the House of Representatives does because of the different voting method,” Senator Brandis said.

“And I think that is a good thing.”

Special Minister of State Mal Brough, who is in charge of electoral matters, is seeking advice on the changes to the system.

Meanwhile, Queensland Liberal MP Jane Prentice has been made chair of the parliament’s electoral matters committee.

16 February
Comments Off on Adam Goodes speaks out in first interview since retiring

Adam Goodes speaks out in first interview since retiring

Adam Goodes has given his first media interview since retiring from the AFL, speaking to a student newspaper about racism, his plans for the future and his decision not to do a lap of honour on grand final day.


The dual Brownlow medallist told Sydney University’s Honi Soit newspaper he was “done” with football when he retired after Sydney lost the semi-final to North Melbourne and wanted to make his farewells in a “safe” environment.

Goodes has kept a low profile since retiring, opting against the MCG lap of honour for retired players and also asking not to be nominated for the AFL’s Madden Medal for on and off-field contribution.

He bade farewell to his supporters at the Swans’ best and fairest award last weekend.

“I didn’t want, once I’d finished footy, to be part of any other things that I had a choice in,” he told Honi Soit’s indigenous reporter Georgia Mantle.

“At the end of the day, it’s my choice to do the lap.

“At the end of the day, it was my choice not to be nominated for the Madden Medal.

“I had my last football responsibility at the club best and fairest and that’s what I was looking for.

“It was my supporters, my members, at that event, and you know it was a very safe environment for me to go to and give my sendoff to the people that mattered.”

The booing that plagued his final season was “one of many reasons” he chose to retire, making the decision two months before his final game.

There was a lot of factors, Goodes said.

“And obviously with all the booing and everything, that was another piece of the puzzle that made my decision quite easy,” he said.

Goodes plans to spend the next two months overseas before returning to Australia to continue his fight against racism and domestic violence, and in support of constitutional recognition for indigenous Australians.

16 February
Comments Off on Palmer denies seeking $25m mining loan

Palmer denies seeking $25m mining loan

The Queensland government has confirmed it held recent talks with Queensland Nickel but won’t say whether Clive Palmer asked for a $25 million loan to prop up the company.


Mr Palmer has denied asking for money to keep the company afloat amid rumours 800 jobs at the Townsville plant were at risk.

He issued a written statement on Wednesday saying Queensland Nickel would not borrow funds from the government as long as he was the owner.

“The simple fact of the matter is that there is no loan from the government or anyone else,” Mr Palmer said.

“I understand Queensland Nickel is debt free and has net assets of over $1.9 billion.”

A spokesman from Treasurer Curtis Pitt’s office on Wednesday told AAP the government had held discussions with Queensland Nickel in the last week, but said those discussions were “commercial in nature” and would therefore remain confidential.

Mr Palmer has also denied he had discussed environmental concerns relating to the plant with Mr Pitt, saying media reports on the issue were a “fabrication”.

He said he had invested a lot of money to ensure jobs at the Townsville refinery remained safe, and that the workers were well paid.

“I put my money on the line for the people of North Queensland and that is the truth of the matter,” he said.

“Workers at QNI are paid on average more than 25 per cent above the award and receive an extra one per cent in super each year above what the company is required to pay.

“There is no reason to panic just because the price of nickel has dropped.”

Workers’ Union Queensland spokesman Cowboy Stockham told the ABC he had also been assured the Townsville plant’s 800-strong workforce is safe.

16 February
Comments Off on No one says ‘brb’ anymore because we never sign offline

No one says ‘brb’ anymore because we never sign offline

The initials “BRB” may refer to many things: the British Railways Board, the Banco de Brasilia, the Belorussian currency.


But one thing it increasingly does not indicate is the practice of leaving one’s computer and later coming “right back.” This is 2015! We keep our computers in our pockets.

According to Google Trends – the only reliable oracle for this sort of thing – US searches of the phrase “brb” have fallen pretty steadily from their all-time high in 2010. (There was a spike, in May 2011, but that likely related to the exploits of some basketball-playing Brazilians.) Meanwhile, global smartphone sales have more than quadrupled during that time, according to the IT research firm Gartner: from merely 81 million phones sold in the third quarter of 2010 – to a whopping 330 million sold last quarter.

I’m not saying the smartphone killed “brb,” per se but it definitely made that kind of chat shorthand passe.

This is not an original observation, mind you: The rumored death of brb has recently become its own sort of meme. Since January, it’s appeared twice on the front page of Reddit and zillions of times on Whisper and Twitter: asynchronous social platforms that never needed that kind of signpost to explain a bathroom break or other brief absence from the computer.

Where brb has been helpful, historically, is on semi-synchronous chat platforms: places like AIM or Gchat or Facebook Messenger, where your thoughts are posted almost as soon as you have them. The Internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme traces the earliest recorded use of “brb” back to a chat session in 1989, when users with screen names like “THE GIBBER” and “Deadhead13” stepped away from their blocky, 8-bit Apple IIs for a little offline time.

Even in those early pre-World Wide Web days, though, chatters were realizing that semi-synchronous conversations could get … a little weird. They had a good model for asynchronous communications, like letters and telegraphs, and they knew how to converse in real time IRL. But online, you couldn’t easily tell whose turn it was to type – let alone if your conversation partner was paying attention. An extended silence from Deadhead13 could mean he got up to get a drink, or you just offended him.

Faced with those kinds of quandaries – what a team of Cornell researchers once termed “threats to the coordination of online conversations” – chatters quickly developed their own code of status indicators. An away message meant you weren’t at your computer. “Discourse markers” like “mmmm” or “…” meant you were there, but pondering what to say. And brb – along with its lesser cousin, “away from keyboard” or afk – became shorthand for a brief and foreseeable stepping-away.

But where would you have to step now to avoid incoming messages? Thanks to the rise of the smartphone – and SMS, and the mobile Internet – being away from one’s keyboard is no longer an excuse for not answering a text. Repeated studies have shown that we feel pressure to carry our phones everywhere: into our beds and our bathrooms, on our coffee “breaks” and to our family dinners.

Predictably, an entire ecosystem of apps have cropped up to exploit the trend and further suck us in: What are WhatsApp or Slack or Facebook Messenger if not attempts to lasso our constant, uninterrupted attention? (It’s maybe worth noting that people do still bust out “brb” in exactly these sort of desktop chat environments – but because all three come with mobile apps, you can easily continue the conversation by phone after you’ve shut your laptop.)

Recently, of course, researchers and ordinary phone-addicts alike have gotten worried about questions like these. There are whispers that constant contact via smartphone is addictive, or that it links to depression and anxiety. Scholars have actually begun to study the ridiculously named “nomophobia – a fear of not being able to check one’s phone constantly. And yet, when someone launched an app to address nomophobia in 2013, it sputtered out within mere weeks.

The app, which let users post mobile away messages to their networks, was appropriately called BRB.

As BRB’s fate might suggest, people just aren’t all that interested in taking breaks from their phones. That might only become more true as smartphone-natives get older. According to Gallup, 11 per cent of all adults say they check their smartphone every “few minutes;” the figure doubles when you zoom in on the under-30 set.

Ironically, even smartphone-makers didn’t initially think their devices would work this way. In a 2007 patent, filed six months after the launch of its very first iPhone, Apple described a system that would automatically indicate to would-be chatters whether the person they wanted to text or call was present and available. One mock-up shows a list of Jabber contacts on an iPhone screen, each marked with his own little away message: “at work,” “looking for coffee,” “in a meeting.” Be right back.

As Apple and others have learned since then, however, you can’t brb if you never left.

16 February
Comments Off on ‘Parliament must get this job done’ – marriage equality tops new Senator’s to-do list

‘Parliament must get this job done’ – marriage equality tops new Senator’s to-do list

A former adviser to two federal Greens senators, newly sworn-in Senator Robert Simms is no stranger to the halls of Parliament House, but his first week in the chamber hasn’t been free of nerves.


“It’s like the first day in any new job, but there are lots of people watching,” he told SBS.

Senator Simms has his work cut out for him with one of the party’s highest profile policy issues, taking on the LGBTI/marriage equality portfolio.

“I’ve been involved with [LGBTI] campaigns for a number of years. There are a whole range of issues that impact on the LGBTI community,” he said.

“At the top of that list is marriage equality. The community is looking at Parliament to get that done.”

Senator Simms, who replaces former South Australian Greens Senator Penny Wright, also identified homophobia and transphobia in schools, and LGBTI issues in aged care as areas he’d like to give priority within his portfolio.

A former Adelaide City councillor, as well as adviser to Greens senators Scott Ludlam and Sarah Hanson-Young, Senator Simms previously worked in the community sector as a policy advocate and on the boards of community organisations, including the AIDS Council of South Australia.

In his maiden speech to the Senate today, he detailed his own coming out story, growing up in the suburbs of Adelaide.

“I stand here today as an out and proud gay man, but it certainly wasn’t always so. I remember I was around 12 when I realised I was gay, I was in my final year at primary school. It was a secret I carried for a long time – indeed I didn’t tell anyone until I was in my early twenties,” he said.

“I had no conception of what a gay life might look like and was scared for the future. I have to say, standing in the federal Senate talking about coming out wasn’t exactly what I envisaged for my future as a closeted teenager in suburban Adelaide.”

He said his own experience with sexuality was what underpins his support for the issue of marriage equality.

“I know when I was a young person that that reform would have made a big difference to me. It actually would have changed things quite a lot; a positive symbol that no matter who you are or who you love, all are equal before the law,” he said.  

“The time has well and truly come for our nation to finally turn its back on the homophobia and discrimination of the past. This Parliament must get this job done.”

Senator Simms’ Lower House colleague, Adam Bandt, yesterday reaffirmed the Greens’ call for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to allow the federal Parliament to vote on same-sex marriage. He told the House of Representatives that Australia’s marriage laws continue to send the message to people who are same-sex attracted and in same-sex relationships that their love is “not equal”.

“Our homophobic marriage laws are part of a system that for years has told young people who are understanding their sexuality and identity that, if you’re not straight, you’re not equal. You’re different. You’re wrong. You’re less,” he said.

16 February
Comments Off on Marlon James’s Bob Marley novel wins Man Booker prize

Marlon James’s Bob Marley novel wins Man Booker prize

The 686-page novel, which uses Jamaican patois, Harlem slang and liberal doses of scatological language, tells the story of a gang of cocaine-fuelled ghetto kids armed with automatic weapons who tried but failed to kill Marley in the Jamaican capital Kingston in 1976 before he gave a peace concert.


“Jamaica has a really really rich literary tradition, it is kind of surreal being the first and I hope I’m not the last and I don’t think I will be,” James, 44, said after winning the award.

“There is a real universe of sort of spunky creativity that’s happening,” he added. “I hope it brings more attention to what’s coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean.”

James, who said he had been inspired to become a writer by his father, said he had decided to give up writing after one of his books was rejected 70 times, but eventually it was published and he was able to put the voices he heard in Jamaica into his work.

“The reggae singers … were the first to recognise that the voice coming out of our mouths was a legitimate voice of fiction …that the son of the market woman can speak poetry,” he said.

Author and academic Michael Wood, chair of the five judges who selected James’s book from a shortlist of six titles, said the sprawling work had impressed the entire panel.

“The excitement of the book kept coming, I think, and we just felt it didn’t flag, and on re-reading it just got better,” he told reporters.

The book is the third novel by James, who now lives in Minneapolis and teaches writing.

In an online interview with the Gawker Review of Books website, James was quoted as saying the book breaks a lot of the rules he teaches his students at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Half of the stuff in that book I don’t allow my students to do,” James said. “There’s a seven-page sentence in the book. Even when the book ends, it just stops.”

Wood told reporters he was sure his mother would not have been able to get through even a few pages of the book, but he recommended it to readers who want to try something different.

“It may be controversial but only if you simply extract the swearing and drugs and stuff from the context,” he said. “It could well be that it’s not so controversial.”

The prize, which in its 47-year history previously has gone to Salman Rushdie, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee, carries a top cash award of 50,000 pounds ($76,000), but more importantly can be a huge shot in the arm for book sales.

Last year’s winner, Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, has sold 800,000 copies worldwide, a statement announcing the prize results said.

James’s book has won high critical acclaim, with the New York Times saying it was “like a (Quentin) Tarantino remake of ‘The Harder They Come’, but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner”.

Wood noted that James calls his novel – which opens with a dead man speaking, describes events that occurred in Jamaica from the viewpoints of dozens of characters, and closes in New York City – “Dickensian” in its scope.

He said a rule change two years ago which allowed American writers to compete for the Man Booker, previously limited for the most part to the Commonwealth, had no impact on this year’s choice, since Jamaica is a Commonwealth country. But he said the change had broadened the types of books under consideration.

“The sheer range of what we read was amazing,” he said.

16 February
Comments Off on Australia, US affirm right to sail in South China Sea

Australia, US affirm right to sail in South China Sea

Australia and the US have delivered a strong message to China about freedom of navigation near its artificial islands in the South China Sea.


Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says Australia’s committed to international order and that means adhering to freedom of navigation and overflight.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the US would fly and sail wherever international law permits and will do so at a time and place of its choosing, whether that be in the Arctic or the South China Sea.

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There are reports the US could be prepared to test that principle, conducting a naval patrol within 12 nautical miles of one island.

The New York Times said the US hadn’t ventured that close to Chinese-occupied islands since 2012.

Tensions in the South China Sea caused by territorial claims were discussed during the AUSMIN talks, attended by US secretary of state John Kerry, Mr Carter, Ms Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne in Boston on Tuesday.

Both the US and Australia affirmed they took no sides on South China Sea territorial disputes and urged peaceful resolution and for all states to refrain from provocative actions.

The communique expressed strong concerns about Chinese islands, calling for a halt to all reclamation activities, construction and militarisation.

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Mr Kerry didn’t confirm the US planned to patrol near one of the islands.

Neither did Ms Bishop or Senator Payne comment on a media report suggesting Australia could participate.

Ms Bishop said the US was involved in naval patrols in that area all the time.

“And so it’s not surprising for the US to exercise its right to travel through this region according to international law and I’m sure they will continue to do so, as Australia and other countries will continue to do so,” she told Sky News.

Ms Bishop said Australia welcomed Chinese President Xi’s statement that China did not intend to militarise the Spratly Islands.

“And we’ll hold China to it,” she told reporters in Boston.

Mr Carter said uncertainty and excessive military activity in the South China Sea was having the effect of increasing US maritime co-operation with regional nations which were seeking additional interaction.

That includes Vietnam, India, the Philippines and Japan.

“And we are committed to meeting that demand,” he said.

Relations with Australia remained incredibly close and that would be enhanced with additional combined naval training and exercises.

16 February
Comments Off on Nothing to hide – data retention, dignity and tampons

Nothing to hide – data retention, dignity and tampons

Sometimes life messes with you.


Sometimes it becomes a literal bloodbath, despite your best intentions. 

Anyway, I’ve decided to swing my bloody tampon around in public today to make a point, so brace yourselves. Menstruation has never been an enjoyable part of my life. Basically I’ve spent most of my life hiding something that happens to me once every four weeks.

I clearly remember the first time I bled. I had no idea what was happening or why there was blood in my underwear. I thought I was dying. When my mother explained to me that it was all completely natural, I burst out: “I’m going to do what for at least a week of my life every month until it stops?!” And then my mother gave me the most important lesson in being a woman: “It happens to all of us. But… just remember: nice girls never talk about it.”

Despite my mother’s lecture on how my first period was a blessing, the first 10 years of those monthly experiences were pretty damn messy. Early adolescence was filled with regular experiences of scrubbing menstrual bloodstains off white sheets before the sun came up. Sanitary pads were kept in the hallway closet next to the shoe polish and spare toilet paper rolls. I was only allowed to take a pad when nobody was watching. Oh god, I spent so long loitering in the hallway, waiting for a suitable moment to take a replacement pad.

Then later, once I’d moved out of home, I proudly bought my first pack of tampons and taught myself how to shove one up there just right. Charming. Fabulous times, in young womanhood it wasn’t. But like pretty much every other girl I knew, I kept it private and eventually I got the hang of it. Mostly. 

Until early August this year, when something happened. I started bleeding. Not just a normal period, but clots, for seven days. I assumed it was just a glitch. That things would even out. So I kept my daily routine up. Work, school drop-offs, play-dates for my son, gym sessions, healthy eating. I was exhausted. 

Then, at a dinner at a friend’s house I stood up to help with carrying dishes to the kitchen, and found I’d bled through my modest knee-length dress, through leggings, through to the cushion I’d been sitting on. I bled so much my tampon had dislodged. What the actual hell? 

But okay, sometimes women have irregular bleeding, right? I assumed the next month, things would be back to normal. Right? But except things didn’t go back to normal, not at all. 

The first week and a bit of my cycle were spent trying to pull myself back together after huge blood loss. And then towards the end of week two my mood plummeted in a way that utterly terrified me. I had no idea what was going on, except something was seriously up and I didn’t know what. 

My temporary work contract was ending, I’d just stepped off a long haul flight from Europe, everything felt like a mess. I felt like a mess. For the first time in a long time, I felt pretty down on the world. And then my period started. It’s no exaggeration when I say there was blood everywhere. Everywhere. Blood on my clothes. Blood on the couch cushions. 

I staggered into the bathroom and realised I had blood on my left elbow. I tried to clean up as best I could, and then looked at my very pale face in the mirror. There was a speck of menstrual blood just below my right eye. 

I called the doctor and made an appointment. “Umm, sometimes these things happens,” he said. “If it happens again, come back.” So I went home and lay in bed until the bleeding stopped. Then I cleaned the house and felt like a lump of wet concrete for most of the rest of the next month. Until week three of my cycle, when I suddenly felt like all the world was doom and would probably end pretty much immediately. 

And then it kind of did. I started bleeding again. And it was worse again. Just indescribably bad and scary. I called my doctor’s office, only to find he was overseas. Meanwhile, I was bleeding through onto the driver’s car seat. 

A word popped into my mind: haemorrhage. By the evening, I was in hospital.

“Woah, you look pale,” said the triage nurse. Turns out, the word “haemorrage” was pretty close to the mark. The young doctor in the ER told me I have a condition known as menhorragia. It’s actually a pretty common disorder, but not talked about very much, because “nice girls don’t talk about their time of the month.”  

Menhorragia is the cause of at least 5 per cent of all referrals of premenopausal women to gynaecologists. But because women under-report menhorragia due to social stigma, the actual number of women who experience it could be as high 20 per cent of the female population. 

Anyway, I’m waiting for things to stabilise. I’ve been given the pharmaceutical option of stopping my periods altogether, which I’ve gratefully accepted. Actually, I’m pretty ecstatic about that. Here’s hoping I stop bleeding soon. 

The morning I came out of hospital I called a friend. I needed the moral support. The experience had knocked me around a whole lot. I felt crummy. I told her what had happened, shucking off my mother’s advice that nice girls don’t talk about bleeding. I needed the camaraderie and my friend made all the right noises at the right time. It was exactly what I needed. A sense of personal reassurance during a horrible experience. 

And then just as I was starting to feel like hey, this was something that she understood and I’d get through, goddamit, she ruined everything by pointing out that data retention would be implemented in just a few days, and based on the state of surveillance in Australia it was likely a few government agencies already knew I’d called my doctor, been in hospital and were probably listening in as we talked about my menstrual cycles.

And so I hung up and cried for a while. Anyway, I’ve decided to ignore some social stigma today for few reasons. 

1. Menhorragia is really very common. I hope that by talking about it, other women will feel more comfortable to do so as well. 

2. Social stigma doesn’t just go away easily. Many women will continue to want to hide their condition. 

3. Mandatory two-year data retention starts on today in Australia. Everyone has something to hide. There are parts of ourselves that are messy and also potentially socially stigmatising. And we should have the right to choose which parts of ourselves we hide and which parts we keep private. Data retention invalidates this basic human right. 

It shouldn’t be too much to ask that the government doesn’t spy on our most basic bodily functions. Data retention makes it harder for us to talk freely about the things we need to talk about, privately. Mass surveillance regimes turn our personal traumas into a pantomime to be interpreted by whoever watches us. 

Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence…” It feels pretty disturbingly arbitrary that under Australia’s data retention regime, multiple government agencies can find out what health websites I’ve searched and which friends I’ve called for support.

Perhaps the UNDHR seems like an antiquated concept, but it was birthed in reaction to some of the worst human rights atrocities of WW2. It’s no coincidence that that article 1. of the UNDHR states all people are “..born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 

Dignity is enacted through the ability to construct private and public personas. It’s the right to choose which data we keep private and which data we allow others to see. Data retention merges public and private identities for the purposes of government surveillance. It undermines basic right to choose how we construct our identity through the information we share. 

Anyway, I have to go purchase a bunch more tampons now. Track that, you bastards. 

Asher Wolf is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and founder of Cryptoparty.

16 February
Comments Off on Double, double, toil and trouble? The surprising truth about the real Macbeth

Double, double, toil and trouble? The surprising truth about the real Macbeth

Alex Woolf, University of St Andrews

It is among the bloodiest and cruellest of plays.


For some, even uttering its name can conjure up bad fortune and the foulest of happenings. But now, Michael Fassbender’s acclaimed new film has put the tragic tale of Macbeth back in the spotlight.

Shakespeare’s Scottish play tells of a warlord pushed into a blood-soaked coup by the Delphic prophesies of a trio of witches – and the relentless ambitions of his wife. Like so many modern military dictators, Macbeth seizes power with the best intentions but is haunted by his lack of legitimacy and quickly descends into vicious tyranny. Needless to say, there are no happy endings for this usurper.

Macbeth is not just a fiction, however, but a real man, too. Born around 1000, he reigned in the kingdom of Scotland from 1040 to 1057. Subsequent Scottish kings claimed their descent from his rivals – Duncan and his son Malcolm – however, and so as the narrative of Scottish history was gradually constructed and reconstructed over the course of the 500 years that separated Macbeth and Shakespeare, Macbeth became a bogeyman, even the son of the Devil himself.

The king is dead

Hard facts from this period are few and far between. We can, however, correct some of the elements in Shakespeare’s gory version of events. In the play, Duncan, the king Macbeth murders for the crown, is an old man. But his real life namesake, Duncan I, was rather younger. He also had only a spurious claim to the throne.

While Duncan, who ruled from 1034 to 1040, was the grandson of Malcolm II (1005-1034), the lineage ran down the maternal side – Malcolm II had, in fact, killed off many of his other male relatives. In those patriarchal times, this rarely would have been good enough to qualify for the crown and doubtless caused the Scottish nobility to grumble about Duncan’s legitimacy.

Enter Macbeth. Macbeth’s family dominated the northern part of the kingdom and had some pretensions to royalty themselves. They were descended from someone named Ruaidrí – whose origins are unknown but probably lived in the late 10th century – and appear to have won their renown battling the viking colonies in Caithness and Orkney. In effect, they were the guardians of Scotland’s back door, something reflected perhaps in Shakespeare’s decision to begin his play with Macbeth’s victory over the Norwegians.

Macbeth’s father, Findláech (Finlay), had been murdered by his own nephews in 1020, and his death is noted in two Irish chronicles, the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach, the main sources for this period.

Nevetheless, one describes him as King of Alba (Scotland) and the other as Mormaer – a title roughly equivalent to the English “earl” – of Moray. This ambiguity of title appears to stem from the fact that the north of Scotland, roughly between the river Spey and the river Oykell, was a semi-independent region whose rulers largely accepted the overlordship of Malcolm II, who was based in the Tay basin.

The die is cast

Macbeth himself first appears in history in the company of Malcolm II and Eachmarcach – a member of the Dublin viking dynasty who ruled in the Isle of Man and western Galloway – at a meeting with Cnut the Great when he came north to cement his overlordship in Scotland in 1031.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes all three of the northerners as “kings”, suggesting that Macbeth was already de facto ruler of Moray by this time. Additionally, Macbeth recently had married his cousin’s widow, Gruoch, a member of Duncan’s royal line.

By the time Malcom II died in 1034, then, Macbeth was a mature and capable ruler with strong royal ties. Malcolm’s heir Duncan, on the other hand, was likely still an inexperienced teenager.

Indeed, Duncan’s first major military expedition as king, a 1038 attack on Durham, ended in complete disaster. And his second, apparently a 1040 invasion of Moray, Macbeth’s homeland, resulted in his death – although he was almost certainly killed in battle rather than murdered in bed.

So began Macbeth’s reign. Perhaps surprisingly, the real Macbeth’s 17 years in power were largely uneventful, which probably speaks in his favour. In 1045, Duncan’s father, Crínan, by this time abbot of Dunkeld, led an uprising which was easily suppressed – and in 1050 Macbeth made a pilgrimage to Rome, suggesting he was confident of domestic security.

Siward of Northumbria’s invasion, which provides the climax to Shakespeare’s play, occurred in 1054 and seems to have had the limited objective of liberating the Strathclyde region, only recently occupied by the Scots. Meanwhile, Macbeth remained secure in his own kingdom, north of the Forth.

Damned by posterity

When his end came in 1057, it came from the North, where Duncan’s son Malcolm seems to have been living in exile with his cousin Thorfinn, the Scandinavian Earl of Orkney. Macbeth was confronted by an army led by Malcolm at Lumphanan, near Huntly in Aberdeenshire and, while the outcome of the battle is uncertain, Macbeth appears to have been mortally wounded, dying shortly afterwards.

Macbeth was succeeded by his stepson, Lulach, who held out for a few months more, but the tide had turned in Malcolm’s favour and he was crowned Malcolm III in 1058.

Malcolm III proved to be the ancestor of all subsequent Scottish kings and so Macbeth’s reputation was soon damned by posterity. His reputation wasn’t entirely sullied, however. One fragmentary 11th-century chronicle entry notes that Macbeth’s reign was blessed by unparalleled fertility in Scotland. This may simply record some clement climatic event but it is more likely that it reflects a popular memory, untrammelled by the concerns of dynastic legitimacy, that those were the good old days, when Macbeth ruled the Scots.

Dr Alex Woolf works for the University of St Andrews. He received an AHRC grant to work on his book from Pictland to Alba which covers, inter alia, the MacBeth story. He is a member of the Scottish Green Party